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European Court of Human Rights

Volume 572: debated on Tuesday 17 December 2013

1. What recent representations he has received about UK withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights; and if he will make a statement. (901648)

The coalition agreement commits the Government to the European convention on human rights and the Strasbourg Court. However, the differences between the two parties’ views on this subject are well known, so there will be no major changes before the next election, although, of course, it is my party’s intention that there should be afterwards.

Does the Lord Chancellor agree with me that it is quite outrageous that the European Court of Human Rights has deemed whole-life sentences to be in breach of human rights laws? Is he aware that I used to be a strong supporter of the Court, but that I now feel strongly that the time has come when it is in our national interest to come out of it?

My hon. Friend echoes the view of many people in this country that the whole-life tariff ruling is entirely inappropriate. The Government are considering how best to respond to the ruling, but it is an example of why, in my view, the Court’s reputation in this country has fallen dramatically in recent times, and of why change is now so urgently necessary.

Will the Secretary of State think more carefully about this issue? Were Britain to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, and consequently, from the European Court, where would our moral stature be in condemning human rights abuses in any other European country, and what would be the future for human rights in this country? Does he not think that, instead, he should be more positive and proactive about the necessity of human rights legislation to protect us all?

Let us be absolutely clear: human rights are important and remain a central part of what this Government, and any Government in this country, do to promote good practice around the world. That does not necessarily mean, however, that we all have to endorse the working of a Court that, in my view, has lost its way.

It is five months since the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the whole-life tariff case, so why are the Government still vacillating over what to do about it? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem is that the European Court of Human Rights is seeking to legislate rather than to interpret the law, because the whole-life tariff was a substitute for capital punishment?

My view is that it is not appropriate for the Court to seek to make law for this country in such an area, which should be a matter for Parliament. My hon. Friend will understand, particularly given the realities of coalition politics, the care we are taking with our response, but he should be in no doubt that both I and the Prime Minister believe that the ruling takes us into a place where we should not be.

Notwithstanding the difference between the two coalition parties in government, does the Secretary of State not believe that there are no examples of the Strasbourg Court defending our rights where domestic courts have failed?

That is an interesting point. Although we understand and respect the differences between the coalition parties on this matter, the Labour party is dancing on a pin. One week, it says that it opposes votes for prisoners; the next week, it supports the rulings of the European Court. As our party sets out its proposals over the next 18 months, it will be fascinating to see exactly where Labour stands.

Can the Secretary of State list the European countries that are not part of the European convention on human rights? Does he really think that Britain’s international standing would be enhanced by joining the club with Belarus?

It is important to say that my concern has always been about the Court, not the convention. As I have said to my hon. Friend in the past, anyone who reads the terms of the convention would find it to be a document that we would all agree with. The problem is the way in which it is being interpreted, which, in my view, has moved a long way away from the intentions of the people who drafted it in the first place.

This Government’s position on, and attitude to, Strasbourg was recently cited in Ukraine as a reason in defence of opposing one of the recommendations of the Court. Does the Secretary of State recognise that withdrawal from the Court would have implications for millions of people beyond our boundaries and beyond our nation?

The key point that the hon. Gentleman must understand is that we can be, and will continue to be, a beacon of propriety as regards human rights in the world, but that that does not mean that we have to continue to accept a jurisprudence that is treading on territory that rightly belongs to this Parliament. In my view, this Parliament needs to address that issue.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no point in this country withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights if we remain bound by the European Union and its charter of fundamental rights, because we will finish up being told what to do by the European Court of Justice?

As we renegotiate our membership of the European Union—as I hope and believe we will when we win the next election—it is important that we also address the legal position of the charter, which is not only an issue for this country, but conflicts directly, in a number of key areas, with the wording of the convention.