"Thank you very much indeed for that introduction. It is a delight to be back in Belfast again and given another opportunity to impose my thoughts on a tolerant audience. In my time as Speaker I have spoken to a Youth Parliament event in this city and to the annual conference of the Political Studies Association. I can already sense that those assembled today to hear my words and offer what I fully expect to be challenging questions will be at least as dynamic as the Youth Parliament attendees and no less distinguished than the academics whom I previously encountered. I am also aware, however, that visiting politicians are scarcely a novelty in Northern Ireland this year and compared with the G8 leadership I must seem a fairly modest offering. I will do my best to make up for the fact that I am neither a Head of State nor a Head of Government but a humble Speaker, or at any rate a Speaker who ought to be humble.
Before I begin, I would like to pay tribute to my hosts this evening, Amnesty International. Founded 52 years ago by Peter Benenson, it is hard to identify a voluntary movement which has had a more profound impact on the lives of people across the world. Amnesty’s purpose is simple, yet extremely ambitious: “to protect people wherever justice, fairness, freedom and truth are denied.” Here in Northern Ireland, Amnesty’s campaigning on human trafficking and institutional child abuse is living up to this vision and making us all ask ourselves questions which, although difficult and sensitive, need to be asked. I wish you success with this vital work.
It is, of course, no coincidence that I am here during Pride Week and very proud to be. What was once a celebration marked by a tiny hardcore of principled and brave individuals has been transformed into something approaching institutional status. This is a wonderful development in so many ways but I hope and anticipate that institutionalism will not be the cause of inertia. This is hardly a crusade which is so well established that it can be contemplating what to do with its victory lap of honour. In pursuit of fairness for LGBT people and of human rights more widely, we are some way out of the starting blocks but still well short of the finishing line.
With that in mind, after some observations on the Northern Ireland context, I want to organise my remarks around three distinct themes and assertions. The first is to explain why I am here, why I want to associate myself publicly with causes such as Pride Week and why despite the fact that association with them is a departure from the traditional role of the Speaker of the House of Commons, I believe with conviction that Speaker support for human rights is not just legitimate but essential. The second is to offer you an overview of the work which the House of Commons undertakes across the whole realm of human rights, not only the most obvious issues relating to race, gender, sexuality, physical disability and, finally emerging from the shadows, mental illness but a wide range of matters which we may not think of in the category of “human rights” but which to my mind really are.
This section will focus on the work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in Parliament, a body which was created some 13 years ago and one of which I suspect the overwhelming majority of even this clearly upmarket audience have only a modest, if any, prior knowledge. Precisely because that is so I want to set out what the Joint Committee on Human Rights has achieved in a little detail in the ambition that this will assist somewhat in acquiring for it a profile to match its importance. I freely admit that this section might seem more Geek Week than Pride Week but I am wagering that you will put up with me on this matter. Finally, and briefly, I want to set out a few reasons why I am an optimist about Human Rights in the United Kingdom and have every confidence that the Pride Week of 2023 will be an even larger event than we are witnessing this July, with a rate of expansion to match that seen in the last decade.
Before I begin my lecture in earnest, however, it would be odd to stand here before you and not reflect on some of the challenges facing the LGBT community in Northern Ireland. I am no expert on Northern Ireland, but in preparing for this lecture I have spoken to people who are. I wish to share with you some sobering figures: 63% of young people experience harassment at school due to their sexual orientation; 57% of LGBT workers conceal their sexual orientation to some extent at work and, tragically, 29% of LGBT youth have attempted suicide. LGBT people can find themselves isolated when they come out – not just in a geographical sense in rural areas, but in being isolated from their own friends and communities. Those who know the situation here say that understanding, acceptance or even tolerance of LGBT people in Northern Ireland lags behind that of other parts of the United Kingdom. I am not qualified, and it is not my place tonight, to attempt a diagnosis of why this is so. That is surely a matter for you here first to assess and then to address as you think fit. What I am qualified to say, however, as a human being and a straight ally, is that prejudice, intolerance and isolation on the basis of sexuality are a denial of humanity. Such treatment is sentencing people to a life of fear, self doubt and self loathing. It is the theft of one of our most fundamental instincts – to love, and to be loved. This issue is so much more than politics, religion or diplomacy. It is about the subjugation of a fellow human being’s freedom. It is painful. It is demeaning. It is dehumanising. It is wrong.
There are some positive signs, however. The election of openly gay Councillor Andrew Muir as Mayor of North Down is a welcome example of where success in public life has not been denied by sexuality but achieved on merit. The Northern Ireland Executive has recently introduced a workplace awareness raising project on LGBT issues and the Justice Department’s LGBT network has prepared awareness guidance for staff, supported by the Minister. Northern Ireland also has a vibrant LGBT third sector community, exemplified by the Rainbow Project and other voluntary organisations. The LGBT community in Northern Ireland also has a proud history of working hard on equality and human rights across all issues, transcending historic divisions. These positive signs are welcome, and I wish to place on the record my personal support and encouragement for further progress in the future.
So let me start with “why am I here?” I recognise that the role of Speaker of the House of Commons has not been associated with the sort of speech which I am about to deliver now or indeed with any of the other orations which I have offered since my election four years ago. This might lead some to contend that I have to demonstrate my right to do or to be something different, a notion that will be all too familiar to some of you if for other reasons. I am not apologetic about my willingness to be on a platform such as this or the fact that I am President of a charity, The Kaleidoscope Trust, which works with LGBT people put at physical danger, in at least 78 countries around the world - and even sometimes in Britain today - because of the nature of their love. I am thrilled to do this.
My right to be different, as it were, stems from three factors which I believe are relevant.
The first is that while I have the honour of being the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons, I was the first to be elected after a contest which involved open electioneering, written manifestos, hustings speeches to various groups of MPs, media interviews and policy commitments. When I stood for this venerable office I made it plain that I thought it needed to become more than a revered aspect of the world of Westminster but had to become a truly public office, reaching out beyond the chamber of the House of Commons and not being a prisoner of Parliament. No one who heard me make my case would have expected me if elected to be a shrinking violet. Moreover, such an observer would have known that I would not be content to see the decline of the legislature as a check and balance on the executive – any executive of any party composition – continue unabated. I made the concept of an open speakership central to my campaign, I was fortune enough to win and I sense I have a mandate.
The second is that the Speaker should be clear about what the obligation to be impartial does mean and does not mean. Of course, the Speaker should be impartial between the parties and about the policy controversies raging between them. However, I do not believe that a Speaker should be neutral about the importance of politics in our lives, agnostic about the merits of Parliament as an institution, disinterested in the values that underpin our democracy or oblivious to the need to deepen democracy by ensuring equality of participation in it. Equality of participation rests on rather more than equality of franchise. Gay people, for example, were never barred from the franchise because of their sexuality. This does not mean that they have always been politically equal citizens. That is obviously not the case and it is not even cast iron fact today. Democracy has to be about something more than a legal framework. It requires a stronger social underpinning, a cultural commitment, to operate.
I think that message is valid beyond the borders of Britain. I was an active member of the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development before becoming Speaker and I took a particular interest in Burma which as some of you will know I have continued to espouse. I hope to travel to that country later this month, a trip that will certainly be a first for the Speaker of the House of Commons. I have not been shy about condemning human rights abuses – against LGBT people and other persecuted groups – in other countries, including some nations which consider themselves to be democracies despite such prejudice and I do not regard this as stepping outside the demarcation lines of my office. I think that silence would be a dereliction of duty.
Finally, it seems to me to be incredibly important in this regard that Parliament makes the case for what it is doing to the public and that responsibility rests with me too. In the modern world, it would be the height of arrogance for MPs to demand that electors read every word of Hansard, watch every moment of the Parliament Channel and catch up on every activity of the committees of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, such as the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Frankly, this would be less public education than public punishment and I speak as one of those who still loves reading Hansard, periodically watching the Parliament Channel when I am not in the Chair and taking an interest in the work of lesser known committees. We have to take our story to the country. We have to prove our worth. We have to show that far more occurs of much more significance than the legalised blood sport that is Prime Minister’s Questions or the empty benches sometimes seen on television for late night debates might indicate. In doing this we not only have to fight for national attention but fend off what is often corrosive media cynicism. It is a cause, nonetheless, in which I believe passionately just as Pride Week warms my heart as well.
I hope to demonstrate by the end of this speech that human rights is absolutely embedded in the work of the House of Commons and that while we doubtless could or should do more, our primary problem is that this has been a sort of institutional iceberg with at most just over a tenth of what is there visible to those who we should most want to see it.
All of which leads me logically to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the invisible inspectorate. The Joint Committee on Human Rights is a relatively rare creature in several respects. As the name suggests it is a combined committee of the House of Commons and House of Lords with six members drawn from each chamber. Besides being cross-institutional it is also cross-partisan with five Conservatives, four Labour Party members, two Liberal Democrats and one independent among its membership, so neither House and no political party commands a majority. It is chaired by an opposition MP, currently Dr Hywel Francis, the Labour MP for Aberavon. I think these qualities have been crucial to its success.
The Joint Committee has a number of functions but I would like to focus on three vital roles.
The first is that of scrutinising laws. Since the Human Rights Act of 1999 came into effect some 12 years ago, ministers have to declare that any legislation they bring to Parliament is compatible with its provisions. The Committee has, therefore, examined every single Government Bill since 2001 and sought to reach behind the assurance offered in ministerial statements of compliance by asking carefully targeted questions of the relevant minister to ensure that the measure truly is compatible with the Human Rights Act. The Committee has evolved to become a highly effective gatekeeper in this respect and now regularly recommends amendments to Bills which are not always those which ministers would deem helpful. It has become an increasingly confident and assertive voice within Parliament.
To offer some practical implications of this evolving strength I will very briefly set out the agenda of the committee since the last general election. In 2010-2012 the Committee reported in depth on the Armed Forces Bill, the Education Bill, the Identity Documents Bill, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, the Protection of Freedoms Bill, the Public Bodies Bill, the Terrorist Asset-freezing Bill, the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Bill and the Welfare Reform Bill. It had a similarly enormous in-tray in the second session of this Parliament which ran from 2012 to 2013. Since the last Queens’ Speech in May it has concentrated on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill and the Children and Families Bill. It will move on to the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, the Care Bill, the Immigration Bill and the Offender Rehabilitation Bill. This is a vast docket but the legislation concerned affects the lives of millions of our fellow citizens.
The second aspect is undertaking thematic inquiries – deep and long-term studies – into areas of government policy. These often cut across Whitehall departments or involve our national obligations and duties under the European Convention on Human Rights or other international human rights treaties. So in 2010-2012, the Committee carried out an inquiry into the human rights implications of UK extradition policy. Following this, the Committee initiated an inquiry into the implementation of the rights of disabled people to independent living, which examined carefully the UK Government’s compliance with Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. When that was completed, the Committee reported on the human rights of unaccompanied migrant children and young people in the UK in connection with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This was published to considerable critical acclaim last month. As a deliberate consequence, the Committee has served as a catalyst, prompting debate within Parliament on significant human rights themes which would not have acquired the potency of publicity if it had not led opinion.
Thirdly, the Committee carries out shorter topical inquiries and one-off evidence sessions.
This has again covered large and diverse territory. For instance, following the student disturbances in and around Westminster in the Autumn and Winter of 2010, the Committee took oral evidence on the subject of how best to facilitate peaceful protest from student leaders and from the police. It consulted with the TUC in advance of that organisation’s national demonstration in March 2011. It took oral evidence on the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Review at about the same time. It has acquired evidence at the end of every calendar year from the Secretary of State for Justice on the Government’s entire human rights philosophy. It has also where possible taken evidence from the Human Rights Minister on outstanding human rights judgements, and it follows up work on such decisions. It has also taken evidence from the major human rights institutions of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on human rights in the United Kingdom. It also carried out three notable evidence sessions over the space of 12 months, examining the tension in responsibility for human rights between the Supreme Court and the UK courts, the European Court of Human Rights, the UK Parliament and the UK Government. On the second occasion evidence was heard from the President of the Supreme Court and the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. On the third occasion, evidence was heard from the President of the European Court of Human Rights. The Committee also carried out a pre-appointment hearing last October for the new Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Baroness O’Neill of Bengrave. This is plainly a workaholic workload.
Why does any of this matter? It does not, after all, as I have admitted, secure many headlines. It matters because the UK Parliament used to have, to be candid, quite limited credibility as an institutional actor on human rights. In fairness to Westminster, this was a deficiency identified in legislatures all over the democratic world. It led some to conclude that parliaments were basically incapable of concentrating on human rights and might even be a menace to them. This argument was most forcefully expressed in the United States by Ronald Dworkin in his epic volume Law’s Empire where he noted that parliaments were inherently majoritarian institutions so could hardly be trusted to protect human rights which usually involved numerically small or unpopular minorities in any society. The courts, he insisted, should feel free to step in to usurp congressmen or MPs.
There is still, obviously, a lively debate about this issue. The argument ongoing today is, I can state confidently, much more evenly balanced than it had become in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, politics was heading towards an extremely awkward outcome in which it was being suggested very seriously that democratic rights in Britain could be maintained only by the least democratic of our political institutions. This is surely a situation in which any society would be most uncomfortable to find itself.
The fact that we have a more balanced argument is squarely due to the Joint Committee on Human Rights even if this is not recognised throughout the land. The Committee has pressed the Government to keep Parliament fully and regularly informed about what it is doing to change law, policy or practice in the light of a judgement; posing intrusive questions of the relevant ministers both orally and in writing, asking for outside expert advice in its scrutiny of what ministers are doing in the realm of human rights and reporting regularly to Parliament about the speed and the adequacy of that response and on the shortcomings in the system of responding. It has become the institutional equivalent of a smoke alarm warning of the risk of human rights abuse and a fire alarm when matters are really serious.
In short, I can stand here and say hand on heart that I believe Parliament has never been more effective in human rights and that many of the concerns raised by the likes of Professor Dworkin are less salient today, much less salient, than they were before the Joint Committee on Human Rights came in to existence.
However, you do not have to take my word for this. I would like to cite the thoughts of Murray Hunt, a leading academic in this field and more recently an adviser to the Committee itself. He insists that:
“Parliament’s role in relation to human rights has increased not decreased since the passage of the Human Rights Act. The number of substantive debates on human rights issues has increased. Most significant human rights issues of the day are now likely to be recognised as such and debated in some form or other in Parliament. The human rights literacy of parliamentarians has also increased. A wider range of members in both Houses raise human rights issues, including a growing number of members who are not lawyers. Human rights instruments other than the ECHR, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, are more frequently referred to in parliamentary debate. Overall, informed debate about human rights appears to take place more often.”
I cite these words not simply to offer a round of applause to Parliament. I do so because what I have outlined enriches our democracy and serves, in my view, to strengthen our society. Those who most often need their rights respected are not always comfortably located inside so-called Middle Britain but those who have reason to sense that they are outsiders. The Joint Committee on Human Rights’ constituency is frequently the marginalised, the misunderstood and the maligned. Parliament has to represent these people too.
There ends the sermon. I hope I have convinced you both of my own commitment to human rights and that Parliament as an institution is aligned with these issues as never before.
In conclusion, as suggested earlier, I am an optimist about these matters. My hope is spurred by three considerations.
The first is that whether at home or abroad it is becoming ever harder to engage in human wrongs without witnesses. The nature of modern communications makes abuse much harder to hide. Whether it be bureaucratic insensitivity to the vulnerable here in the British Isles or outrageous abuse elsewhere, we are becoming ever more aware of what is occurring. Transparency is our ally in this respect. The searchlight is our beacon to a better Britain and, over time, a less imperfect world.
The second is my certainty that the vast change we have seen in Parliament is a process and not an event. It will continue. I am struck by the force with which so many MPs from right across the spectrum use the many opportunities that parliamentary instruments provide to raise constituency cases which are important individual stories, obviously, but which also form part of a broader human rights narrative. The House of Commons will not retreat to a Dark Age in which few were interested in these matters. Human rights are here to stay at the very heart of our work, in the chamber, in committees and in conversations with our constituents.
Finally, I am inspired by the instincts of younger people whom I encounter on all my visits. For them, matters of human rights and human wrongs are not distant concerns which come far behind traditional economic imperatives or mainstream public services questions. Rather, these matters are integral to their belief systems. No politician or political party is likely to travel far in the politics of the future by professing indifference to equality and the decent treatment of all those who live in our country. I have absolute faith that while the trip may take longer than many of us might like, we are on a one-way ticket towards a culture of mutual respect and tolerance of almost everything except intolerance. The further we traverse on that path, the more meaningful our democracy will be to more people. One Person, One Vote is a noble cause. One Person, One Vote, One Value is even more desirable.
There can be few better places than Belfast and few more appropriate times than Pride Week to issue such a declaration. In the end, I do not accept the dictum that politics is just “the art of the possible” but instead I maintain that it is the art of what we choose to make possible. This week is a tribute to what has been made possible in a relatively short period of time – from criminalisation of a type of love fewer than 50 years ago to the imminent prospect of complete legal equality. Let us all resolve to leave here determined that there is more that we can and will make possible in the years ahead. For your attendance, your interest and your patience, thank you very much indeed."