Geoffrey Cox backs Government motion on ECHR Article 8
19th June 2012
Geoffrey Cox welcomes the Home Secretary’s motion that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights - the right to a family life - should not be used to avoid deportation. He says that although the motion is only a limited, practical measure it will help restore public confidence and assist the courts in achieving consistency and striking the right balance on the issue.
Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): I had not intended to speak, but a number of matters have been raised on which, it seems to me, some light might be thrown. The hon. Members for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) both questioned the effect of what we are doing, and it is on that point that I hope to shed some light.
This is a limited, practical measure, and one that I support, but I do not hold out an enormous degree of hope that it will have a substantive effect on the exercise of the courts’ discretion. Section 3 of the Immigration Act 1971 provides that the Home Secretary can amend the immigration rules, and it provides for the procedure, by way of negative resolution, by which those rules can be challenged. If they are challenged, the Act requires the Home Secretary simply to consider the points that have been made on the resolution that has disapproved them and alter, as she sees fit, the executive administrative guidance that those rules contain. Today, an attempt is being made to give some democratic force to the alteration of the immigration rules, which the Home Secretary could otherwise have done simply by an Executive act, in the hope that it will communicate to the courts the fact that there has been some consideration by Parliament.
I take the view that that might well have some effect on the courts beyond the fact that they will attach a degree of weight to the Home Secretary’s opinion in any event. It is well established in the human rights jurisprudence that a decision maturely taken by the Executive—in this case a Secretary of State who has a wide range of advice available to her and who can consult experts in the field—to change the existing immigration rules would already be accorded a degree of weight by the courts when they are considering what is a proportionate decision in the application of a specific human right. What the Home Secretary is doing today, which, I submit, the House should applaud, is giving the House an opportunity to voice its opinion on the changes she has decided to make.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The key point, as I think the Clerks have already made clear, is that we are not deciding on the totality of the changes; we are deciding only on the basis of what is in the motion being debated today. I would not want the hon. and learned Gentleman to conflate the two by mistake.
Mr Cox: The courts are more than capable of appreciating that what we are dealing with here is not primary legislation. Primary legislation will be accorded a much greater degree of weight—some people use the word “deference”, but the courts have disapproved it—because there is usually a period of consultation, a Bill might have been scrutinised before it was even brought to the House and a wide range of interests will have been taken into account in the process of scrutiny. A court is more than able to distinguish between a piece of primary legislation and a motion such as the one before us and to see the scope that the motion considers. That is why I say that this process is likely to produce a degree—probably a very modest degree—of additional weight to be accorded to the Home Secretary’s discretion. Her discretion would normally be accorded a degree of weight by the courts, and the motion might add a little more to the changes to the immigration rules than they would already have been accorded.
It is not difficult to interpret what is being done here. It is perfectly valid. The courts will not be deceived or hoodwinked. They will see what we are doing. They will no doubt read, if they take the trouble to go that far down the pages of Hansard, the profoundly principled position that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington took when he held up his hands and, with a cry of horror, said, “Not with my assent.” But the reality is that the motion will lend some modest substance to the already substantial decision that the Executive and the Home Secretary have taken. She should be applauded for, and congratulated on, giving the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire the opportunity to mount that—one hon. Member described it as a “rant”; I should never be so impolite—extraordinary, eloquent and passionate diatribe, to which he treated the entire House from his position on the Opposition Benches, representing the Scottish National party.
John McDonnell: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
Mr Cox: I will, given that I have mentioned the hon. Gentleman.
John McDonnell: If the hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument is that what we are doing today is virtually meaningless, I agree, but where does that fit with Pepper v. Hart, which we have always used as the guide to what influences a court’s decisions, and which defines very narrowly how a reference to Parliament—in other words, to a ministerial statement that gives guidance on existing legislation—can be made?
Mr Cox: May I say first that it is not my argument—and the hon. Gentleman knows it. It is a forensic point, which does not do his subtlety and sophistication justice, to suggest that I am saying that this is meaningless. On the contrary, I am saying that it has meaning but we must not overestimate the meaning that it has.
John McDonnell: So, virtually meaningless.
Mr Cox: No! It makes a useful and practical contribution and is a useful measure that, to the extent that the courts are able to perceive what has gone on here, will no doubt provide a useful added measure of weight to the Home Secretary’s discretion. As for Pepper v. Hart, that is concerned of course with primary legislation and the detailed interpretation of individual clauses.
All that is being done here is that the courts are being invited to take note that the motion before us is not simply the executive fiat of the Home Secretary, and that the Home Secretary has put it before Parliament—much the same would have applied if it had been challenged under the 40-day procedure—and a debate about it has been held. Indeed, the courts in the past have examined motions and resolutions of this House and pointed out that they were merely resolutions, but they have not ignored them, and that is exactly what I expect will happen in this situation.
So the motion is perfectly reasonable. It is a laudable attempt to give this House the opportunity to have its say, and if I may say so there was a degree of pedantry from Opposition Front Benchers, who stood on their moral high horse and said, “This should have been primary legislation.” Of course it should not; the immigration rules already have a statutory procedure for amendment, through the Home Secretary’s laying them before Parliament. That is how they are amended, so we ought to avoid the forensic froth of suggesting that this is not a useful and practical—albeit, I accept, limited—measure.
There is no doubt that the Executive have the right, supported by Parliament in whatever measure they ask Parliament to support them, to put to the courts a degree of guidance on the exercise of the courts’ undoubted discretion to decide what is proportionate. This is not an attempt to fetter the courts; it cannot be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) has so often said, the courts are “unfetterable”. They will not be fettered by this House, and rightly so. The courts must exercise an independent, individual judgment.
There are other circumstances, however, in which the Executive seek to give guidance to the courts on what they consider proportionate in the circumstances. Let me give the House another example. The Home Secretary has a discretion to make an exclusion order against somebody outside this country whom it is not conducive to the public good to admit.
In—I think—2007 or 2008, what is called an acceptable behaviours policy was promulgated, setting out the general approach that a Home Secretary will take to what is a proportionate decision when people have made expressions that make them undesirable entrants to this country. That was done because, of course, article 10 on freedom of expression can be invoked, and the acceptable behaviours policy provides a broad framework for the discretion that the Home Secretary is to exercise in deciding whether to admit such a person who is guilty of such statements.
The sentencing guidelines are not dissimilar. They are guidance to a court on how a discretion might be used, but they are not binding: they cannot fetter the independent and individual judgment of the court. So, in my view, what is being proposed here is not without precedent in other areas. It is a limited, practical measure, and it is one that the House should strongly support, because there is a widespread belief among the public—sometimes wrongly held, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has said, and sometimes a caricature—that the Human Rights Act is a shield for all kinds of disgraceful behaviour. The motion before us will do something to restore public confidence in the decisions that the courts make, and will demonstrate that the Government and this House are conscious that a change needs to be made. What will that do? It will assist the courts in striking the right balance and in achieving a degree of consistency, and, in my respectful submission, that is a wholly laudable aim to which this House ought to give its support.