Human Rights Act threatened by panel dispute

<b>LEGISLATION</b> Liberal Democrats accuse the Government of 'childish' behaviour over decision on who should head new select committee
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A political row over the power of Parliament to prevent legislation breaching human rights looks set to overshadow the arrival of the most important change to British law since the Bill of Rights in 1689.

A political row over the power of Parliament to prevent legislation breaching human rights looks set to overshadow the arrival of the most important change to British law since the Bill of Rights in 1689.

Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians are at loggerheads over who should chair a new select committee, which was supposed to be up and running by today, to coincide with implementation of the Human Rights Act - one of Labour's key election pledges.

The Liberal Democrats want an independent chairman who will not take the government line on controversial issues such as the troubled Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial No 2) Bill, and a UK human rights commission.

Lord Lester QC of Herne Hill, the Liberal Democrat peer and one of the architects of the new Act, said without the committee to scrutinise new legislation in place, the Human Rights Act was severely diminished.

He accused the Government of being "childish" and "boring", adding: "It should have been set up before Parliament broke off for the summer. But it wasn't because the Government is saying that it wants a Labour MP to chair it or they won't set it up at all. We believe it should be chaired by someone independent of government."

The committee will also be charged with deciding whether the rest of Britain should follow Northern Ireland and have a human rights commission to ensure public bodies comply with the new Act, something the Government has said is unnecessary.

Lord Lester said he believed Labour could not afford to allow the committee to be chaired by a non-government supporter because of the sensitivity of its legislative programme in the run-up to a general election.

"It will make ministers accountable to Parliament because they will be quizzed about why they think a Bill is compatible with the Human Rights Act," he said.

Many MPs would prefer a law lord to chair the committee but Tony Blair has made it clear in correspondence with Parliament that he wants itto be a 12-person joint committee chaired by an MP. The Conservatives, who are reluctantly co-operating with the Government, said the Liberal Democrats had "got above themselves". A spokeswoman for the Home Office confirmed the chairmanship of the committee was still the subject of "parliamentary discussion".

From today, with or without a human rights select committee, every British citizen will be able to take any organisation to a British court for breaching a tranche of rights which until now could only be decided by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The British courts have been preparing for this day for more than two years. Lord Irvine has spent £4.5m on sending judges and magistrates on courses so they can be taught how to settle disputes by applying Strasbourg principles of justice.

Another £60m in legal aid and court costs has been set aside to fund the new cases.

The cost to British business in making sure its codes of conduct and disciplinary and appeals procedures do not breach the Human Rights Act is likely to run into millions. The Government says it is money well spent.

The Centre for Policy Studies, an independent think-tank, is to publish a report later this year which will put an overall figure on the cost of the new Act. "We have found that it is going to cost a fortune with very little benefit to the public," said a source.

The Conservatives' primary concern is aimed at the new powers granted to the judiciary under the Act. The question for Edward Garnier, the legal affairs spokesman for the Conservatives, is how can Parliament keep the judges in check.

Under the Act, the judiciary has the power to strike down secondary legislation and declare primary legislation incompatible with the European Human Rights Convention.

Mr Garnier said: "It means judges will move more and more into the political arena - so that they will be initiating the law-making process. MPs are going to wake up to the fact that judges are making political decisions. That is a job for the elected legislature not the unelected judges."

He warned that if judges started to have political influence then there would be calls for parliamentary scrutiny of the judicial appointments system.

Scotland incorporated the Human Rights Act in May last year at the same it won devolution. Points have been raised in 600 court cases with about 20 being upheld.

In one instance, a court found that a woman accused of drink-driving did not have to tell police who was behind the wheel when an offence was committed because she was being asked to incriminate herself.

The interpretation raisesserious questions over the policy of prosecuting motorists, who are asked a similar question when they are caught by speed cameras.