[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Human Rights Act 1998.
I am delighted to welcome you to the Chair, Mr Betts, and to see that we have a healthy turnout of Members and non-Members here today. I am grateful to the organisations that provided briefings ahead of today’s debate. I should particularly like to place on the record my appreciation of the efforts of Liberty, Amnesty International, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The Gracious Speech included a commitment by Her Majesty’s Government to introduce proposals for a British Bill of Rights. I was pleased that it was framed in such terms for two reasons. First, it is still apparently the policy of Her Majesty’s Government that it should be approached at least on a British, if not UK-wide, basis. Secondly, I was pleased that they are seeking to bring forward proposals and not, as in respect of other commitments in the Gracious Speech, legislation. I take it from that that we are in a place where there is still a debate to be had and where thinking is still going on within government, and I welcome that. I hope that today’s debate is an early part of the debate that will be conducted elsewhere, within the Chamber and the Select Committees in this House and the other place, and even within the various all-party groups. I also hope that this debate will, as befits a subject of this magnitude, be conducted in a thoughtful way and one that accepts good faith and differences on all sides.
The Minister has a significant background in the area of human rights and I do not question his good faith in this matter. I would probably disagree with him both on the definition of the rights and also on the way in which they might be perfected, but I certainly accept his background and his good faith. I hope that the debate in government will not take as its starting point the paper published last year by the former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), which was entitled “British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities”.
The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), whom I am pleased to see in his place today, said that that paper contained a number of howlers which are quite simply factually inaccurate. Those who have known the right hon. and learned Gentleman for as long as I have will know that for him such language borders on the intemperate. Those within government who are considering how to proceed in this way would do well to listen to his words. I expressed that view at the time as a Cabinet Minister. I felt that that contribution to the debate failed to take proper account of the way in which the Human Rights Act had become part of the constitutional architecture of the United Kingdom.
The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield also asked the question that goes to the nub of the issue: what are we seeking to achieve here? Having seen recent pronouncements within government, that remains the question. To answer that question, however, we first need an answer to a much more fundamental question: what is the Government’s intention in relation to the European convention on human rights? Is it that we should remain party to the convention, or will the Government at some future stage, if they are unable to achieve their stated aims, countenance withdrawal from it?
It is worth reminding ourselves of exactly what the Human Rights Act does and the change that it wrought after its implementation. In a dry legal sense, it allows access to convention rights through our domestic courts. Section 2 of the Act says that in reaching judgment our UK domestic courts must take account of the European Court of Human Rights judgments. Whether this was to be extended to make it a binding precedent was considered in the other place during the passage of the Bill and was expressly excluded, so I think the ambit and the extent of the operation of section 2 is an important part that is often misunderstood or just ignored.
The Human Rights Act has brought much more than dry jurisprudence to our legal system and to our constituents. It has offered many of our fellow citizens a basic, fundamental right to respect and dignity in their dealings with government and other public bodies. To take a few instances, it has allowed people with mental health problems the opportunity to retain some rights and some control over their own lives when dealing with the national health service; it has allowed victims of crime to insist on proper investigation of the crimes from which they have suffered; and it has allowed families to be kept together in circumstances in which the operation of the state might otherwise have kept them apart. At its most basic, it has in one instance ensured the right to life. In one case that was offered by way of a working example, a patient suffering from dementia was on a ward where he had been subject to a “do not resuscitate” order. On investigation, it was found that the doctor in charge of the ward had imposed such an order in respect of everybody on the ward without discrimination. At its most fundamental, the Human Rights Act protected the patient’s right to life.
I suspect that such cases are the easy cases. If we dealt only with the easy cases, we probably would not be here today. There is no denying that the application of the Human Rights Act has produced a number of controversial cases. The cases of Abu Qatada and those relating to the right of prisoners to vote are two that spring most readily to mind. This goes to the heart of the matter for me. Human rights are not just there for the nice people. If we are to defend human rights in a meaningful and worthwhile way, we have to be prepared to defend the rights of the unworthy individual from a legitimate authority, or the right of an unpopular minority against the popular majority. Perhaps I should declare an interest: as a Liberal Democrat, I know what it is to be part of an unpopular minority.
For such reasons, the Human Rights Act is inevitably going to be unpopular in government, because it stops Ministers doing what they might otherwise wish to do and what they might otherwise find it expedient to do. That is why, if the protections are to be meaningful, they must be overseen by the judiciary, and not by Parliament or by the Executive, who are insulated from the mood of public opinion at any given time. That brings us back to the question posed by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield: what are we hoping to achieve here? In truth, the Abu Qatada case and the right of prisoners to vote are cases that, before the Human Rights Act, would have got to Strasbourg. Those are exactly the sorts of cases that we saw going from this country over the years.
The question that then arises is if we are trying to get round these cases by somehow seeking to repatriate jurisdiction, what does that mean for the United Kingdom’s future as a contracting party to the European convention on human rights? When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope he will answer this question: what is the Government’s position in relation to our continued future as a contracting party to the convention on human rights? Are there circumstances in which the Government would be prepared to leave the convention? Doing so would put us in rather select company: it would be us and Belarus, and that is not the company I envisaged the United Kingdom finding itself in. In previous Parliaments, I worked with Amnesty International and other organisations on the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. I campaigned with various groups in the United States, South Korea, Japan and elsewhere. The UK has tremendous standing on human rights across the world. We would lose a lot if we walked away from the convention and put ourselves in the company of Belarus. We should be doing what we can to bring Belarus within the convention; we should not be seeking to join it outside.
I want briefly to consider the constitutional architecture of which the Human Rights Act is now such an important part. For example, it is hardwired into the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Before the hon. Gentleman gets to that issue, he has just been dealing with UK jurisdiction delivered by the 1998 Act. Is he aware of the appalling delays that existed before the Human Rights Act? For example, in the case of Abdulaziz, Balkandali and Cabales, which I was involved in when director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, women were separated from their husbands for seven years before getting a judgment that proved that the then British immigration rules breached their human rights.
Indeed; the time it took to get such cases to court—and the need to have the means to do so—was a glaring injustice, and that situation was affected by the introduction of the Human Rights Act. People needed money, or somebody behind them with the means, to get access to human rights. We should not return to that.
On the devolution settlements, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly both have the Human Rights Act hardwired into them: their Acts must be compatible with it. It has already been established that if this is to change, at least for the Scottish Parliament a legislative consent motion would be required in accordance with the Sewel convention. Given recent votes in that Parliament, I do not see how that is going to happen.
The situation in Northern Ireland is even more acute, because there the Human Rights Act is the subject of part of the Good Friday agreement. The second part of the “Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity” section of the agreement states:
“The British Government will complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency.”
The creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the body overseeing it, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, have given effect to that.
The right hon. Gentleman makes compelling points about the need for the Human Rights Act to be retained. In relation to the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday agreement was enshrined in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, with a direct coincidence of human rights provisions. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Northern Ireland Committee on the Administration of Justice recently stated unequivocally that any breach of human rights legislation, or any plan to withdraw it, would be a breach of the provisions of the Good Friday agreement and of the Northern Ireland Act 1998?
Indeed. That illustrates perfectly what I say about the Human Rights Act being hardwired into these agreements, including that settlement. Underpinning that, we should remember that many parties on both sides—in both communities—in Northern Ireland took a massive leap of faith when entering into the Good Friday agreement in the first place. Many of them were prepared to take that leap of faith because of the assurances given by the Government about protecting human rights. Let us not forget that the roots of the civil rights movement are to be found in that conflict; for many people, human rights have always been at the heart of that movement. We should also not forget that the peace process remains a very delicate animal, as was made apparent just before Christmas. We should never take its continuation for granted.
Let me return to the question: what are we seeking to achieve here? If there is a risk to the stability and sustainability of the Northern Ireland peace process, is it worth it? Either there is a UK Bill of Rights with the widest possible operation or we will end up with different standards of human rights protection applying in different parts of this—I use the term advisedly—United Kingdom. That is not what my party, and other parties represented in this Chamber, campaigned for last September. Human rights protection should be uniform across the whole United Kingdom.
I fear that in introducing this proposal the Government have created more problems for themselves than they have realised. I offer the Minister one piece of assistance before I conclude. My learned noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill recently delivered a lecture entitled “Do we need a new Magna Carta?” in which he spoke about how human rights can be protected by a British Bill of Rights. I will happily send the Minister a copy, if he needs it.
If we are to move beyond the Human Rights Act, it can only be done in a way that improves, not diminishes, the protection that is available to our citizens.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), whom I congratulate on securing the debate.
I will not repeat points made by the right hon. Gentleman, particularly his survey of the benefits of incorporating the European convention into our own law through the Human Rights Act. I will concentrate on what I understand the broad thrust of the Government’s proposals to be, because only by doing that can one start a proper analysis of whether benefits might flow from the proposals that outweigh some of the costs—particularly the costs he identified of problems relating to the devolved institutions and Governments—that are undoubtedly present.
It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that there was talk before we created the Human Rights Act of a British Bill of Rights, which was much trawled over by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats during the early 1990s. The project was not pursued because there was a realisation, as time went by, that it was a highly controversial proposal that inevitably sought to bring into one place all sorts of suggestions about rights that might be included in it. Indeed, it is noticeable that as a result of the renewal of this debate, prompted by the Government’s approach, lots of interesting papers are being produced on the possibility of having a Bill of Rights—I was reading one the other day by Geoffrey Robertson QC—not all of which are likely to commend themselves to the Secretary of State for Justice, because of their content.
It was because of that realisation that the then Labour Government in 1998 adopted what was in many ways a very conservative—with a small “c”—proposal in respect of simply bringing about incorporation and preserving the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, tweaking the text in one place to emphasise that, where there was competition between freedom of expression and anything else, freedom of expression should be given a high priority; but otherwise simply allowing the law, through the convention’s incorporation, to be interpreted in our courts. I have to say that I entirely agree with what the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. While there are areas where I have criticisms—I think they are well known—broadly speaking, I think the Act has conferred huge benefits on this country in terms of the accessibility of rights.
It is right that the proposals remain opaque. I do not criticise the Government for that; in so far as they are going away from the proposals published in October, that seems to show a high level of common sense. The question then still arises: what benefits will we get from having a Bill of Rights? I accept that if we wish to have a Bill of Rights that includes rights not protected by the European convention on human rights, such as the right to trial by jury or some practices that might be different in different parts of the United Kingdom, there might be some merit in it; but as long as we remain adherent to the convention, the wriggle room for the Government regarding the convention and its text will be extremely limited—so limited that the ideas prevalent in the Daily Mail that the Bill of Rights would lead to some seismic change in the diminution of rights is simply misleading. We are on dangerous ground indeed if we start to peddle that as a notion to those who seem to be infuriated by the existing rights we have at present.
I was greatly reassured by the Prime Minister’s comments that he had no intention of pulling out of the convention. It would be so contrary to every Conservative philosophical principle of building an international regime for the rule of law and the promotion of rights that I cannot conceive of any mainstream political party embarking on such a course. I was delighted when he confirmed that recently, and I think the Minister may be able to confirm it again this afternoon.
Where does that leave us? The answer is that it leaves us embarking on a project that I am happy to help the Minister with, but one that I think will prove in reality to be extremely difficult, for the reasons given by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, and that, at the end of the day, will deliver extremely limited benefits—indeed, so limited that I begin to wonder whether the project is worth pursuing at all.
With those thoughts in mind—I keep them general at the moment—I simply wish to assure the Minister that I am more than happy to continue to engage with him and others from the Department in which he serves on this issue. I have all sorts of ideas that I am happy to put forward, but it is important that we get some idea at the outset of what we are trying to achieve. Without that, we are in serious danger of taking a wrong turn.
I commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate. It is timely and important, and I concur with all the points made by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) on how we approach this subject. We have to be aware that we are all concerned about human rights. Some of us have spent a great deal of time trying to defend the human rights of the most vulnerable people in this country and other parts of the world. I regularly attend the UN Human Rights Council, for example, and see the importance there of having a forum where those rights can be defended, difficult though it may be. It at least gives the rest of the world an opportunity to say to an authoritarian Government, “You are in breach of the universal declaration of human rights of 1948, and there will be consequences if you persist.”
The European convention on human rights, which was drafted by the Tory Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, gives serious levels of protection to an awful lot of people—the right to family life and a number of other things which are frequently quoted against it in relation to immigration law and other matters. I urge those who decided to go down a tabloid road of saying, “All that matters is to get rid of the controversial Human Rights Act,” to be specific about what they want and what they mean by that. It seems to me that the agenda behind it is to walk away from the convention on the basis that it somehow interferes with our laws and rights. Well, at one level, any time any Government or Parliament anywhere signs a treaty, of course to some extent it reduces their powers and their unfettered ability to do something. That is the whole point of a treaty. By signing up to a convention that covers the whole of Europe, it means that we support a basic level of human rights for people across Europe.
Is it not important to draw a distinction between the convention and section 2 of the Human Rights Act? The point made about the Human Rights Act is that it incorporates the convention into English law. There were convention rights in the United Kingdom and in particular in England before the Human Rights Act. Section 2, which requires that the courts “must take into account” the acts of convention bodies, could be repealed without coming out of the convention. It is important to draw that distinction.
To clarify the apparent misunderstanding among Government Members, section 2 of the Human Rights Act is quite clear. The former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), was careful to remind the House of the careful steps that the Government went through before 2000. Section 2 says that UK courts and tribunals should take account of Strasbourg case law. It is not that they have to do so; it is possible for a UK court to consider and then ignore the jurisprudence. The understanding is that it is about taking account of, rather than blindly following the jurisprudence.
Thank you, Mr Betts. May we get back to the question of the Human Rights Act and what it says? It incorporates the convention into British law and requires courts to take account of the contents of the convention and the rights within it. The Conservative party’s love affair with the tabloids before the last election was all about walking away from this controversial thing because it interfered with British law. Interestingly, the Government, in the person of the Foreign Secretary, now say that we will not leave the convention, but that we might not operate within the purview of the European Court of Human Rights in the future. I am not sure how those two things can be put together. The Foreign Secretary said he will restore rights to British courts, but the rights of British courts have never actually been taken away; they have been asked to take into account an important convention.
The politics are simple. If Britain withdraws from the European convention on human rights and sets up a British Bill of Rights that is outwith that convention and may have all kinds of things within it—good, bad, indifferent, appalling or wonderful—it sends a message to every other country in Europe. Those countries thinking about withdrawing from the European convention because they have been criticised for their treatment of Travellers, for their treatment of gay, lesbian or transgender people, for suppressing popular protest or for closing down internet sites and suppressing newspapers would be a little bit happier if one country withdrew. If Britain—one of the original authors of the document—withdraws, I suspect that many others will withdraw, and the human rights of the whole continent will be significantly damaged as a result. I urge the Government to think carefully about this issue before they go any further.
The Prime Minister was quick to quote Magna Carta, but then bizarrely went to Runnymede to make a speech saying, in a sense, that he would ignore Magna Carta and withdraw from the European convention. He did not seem to realise that most of Magna Carta has been overturned by subsequent legislation anyway, and I think it is only the section on the right to trial by jury that remains. There was also a fundamental misunderstanding about Magna Carta defending the rights of free people. Unfortunately, the statutes of the time defined free people as those who had been given their freedom by the King. The vast majority of the population—the peasantry—was not given any rights at all.
In St Stephen’s, there is a wonderful painting of King John reluctantly putting his seal to Magna Carta. All the barons are saying, “Do it,” but a peasant is lying on the ground saying, “There is nothing in this for me. This is between the barons and the King.” The principles set out in Magna Carta—I would urge people to visit the Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library—descended through the law in many other ways, on the basis that irrational Government should be held to account for what they do and that everybody should be given rights to stand up for what they believe in, with the rest of society being required to allow them to do so.
I do not know what will be in this British Bill of Rights, if it comes about, but I am pretty horrified by the mood music surrounding it, which is about damaging our civil liberties and rights.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, just as judges often made decisions that did not please all the tabloid media before the Human Rights Act was passed, it is possible that judges will make decisions that some newspapers do not find to their liking even after a Conservative Bill of Rights has been introduced?
It is part of the balance in our constitutional process that Parliament is independent of the Executive and that the judiciary is independent of Parliament. Sometimes, the judiciary makes perverse decisions, and sometimes its decisions upset Ministers and lots of other people. That is the point of having an independent judicial system and of referring to the basic principles in the European convention on human rights—the right to assembly, the right to free speech, the right to know and the right not to be discriminated against.
I urge the Government not to go down this road, but to accept that the contribution made in the aftermath of the horrors of the second world war by the European convention on human rights and the wonderful document that is the universal declaration of human rights, with the work that Eleanor Roosevelt put into it, is part of a narrative of giving rights to everybody around the world, whatever their station. If this country, which prides itself on being the longest continuous democracy and having the longest lasting parliamentary system of government and judicial system, walks away from the European convention, every dictator and every person who is annoyed by international conventions will be a bit happier, and it will be a sad day for those who are standing up bravely for human rights against the most oppressive regimes in the world. Please don’t do it!
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I welcome the Minister to his place in what is the Justice Department’s first debate in Westminster Hall.
At the risk of offending both sides, may I suggest that we need to be a bit less theological? I have much sympathy for the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) in opening the debate, and by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who is a distinguished lawyer. However, I suspect that the truth is somewhere in the middle.
There were human rights protections before the Human Rights Act came into force. The United Kingdom was a signatory to the European convention, and it is worth observing that although Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, in his subsequent career, was not noted for being on the liberal wing of the Conservative party, he none the less thought that the convention was a good and desirable thing. There were protections in the convention that the British courts took account of. It is fair to say that there were also sometimes practical issues about access and implementation, and we should not lose sight of that. The thought, therefore, that the Human Rights Act is a sort of holy grail is probably misleading, and we should not be afraid to think of looking at it again and reforming it. Equally, we should not assume that the convention is a permanent intrusion on the rights of British courts, because that would be wrong too. Let us try to find a way through the middle.
I serve on the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and legal affairs committee. Perhaps rather horrifyingly to some people, I also serve on a committee that appoints the judges to the European Court—the idea that a committee of politicians appoints judges may seem odd to us, and that is perhaps an issue we have to look at. The quality of the current Court is, frankly, variable: we have some very good people, and we have some people whose independence does not come from the tradition that we are used to, if I can put it that way. On the other hand, the United Kingdom generally does not have an issue in terms of being at variance with the Strasbourg Court—we have one of the highest rates of compliance with its judgments—so, again, a bit of perspective might be required.
It is perhaps ironic that the Human Rights Act did not seek to create a binding precedent, but the approach taken by our domestic judiciary has frequently got fairly close to that. That is not an issue that withdrawal from the convention, of itself, would address, so we have to be realistic about what can be achieved. In any event, Strasbourg judgments would be regarded as being at least of persuasive value in arguments before our Supreme Court. Simply repealing the Act will not, therefore, make some of the controversy go away, and we have to be realistic about what can be achieved.
On the other hand, bizarre consequences sometimes stem from the Act’s operation, and we perhaps need to look carefully at that. I do not take the view that that would be a signal that we have turned our back on human rights. Britain’s compliance with the convention is rather better than, for example, Russia’s—I do not think we have invaded any of our neighbours recently—so let us put our disagreements with the convention into a bit of perspective.
I hope the Minister will give us a little more assistance on how we go forward. We are committed to a consultation, which is right. In fairness, the Government have committed themselves to a much more significant consultation than that which happened before the Human Rights Act. I would like to know more details of the consultation’s timetable and what form the consultation will take.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is one thing we need to look at? In the past, where we have found difficulties, we have legislated in separate legislation—we did that with the Immigration Act 2014. Changing the text of the Human Rights Act may not be the best course of action. If there are areas of difficulty, we can see whether there is separate legislation that is still compatible with the convention that we can introduce.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very fair point. I hope the Government will include that as part of the consultation. Some of the things that cause offence to many of our constituents might be remedied more easily in a more appropriate fashion. That is an important point.
The Government are committed to basing a British Bill of Rights on the convention, but we need a little more detail about what “basing” means. For example, are there any rights in the convention that it would not be proposed to include in the Bill? That is critical, because people would be concerned about a diminution of protections. On the other hand, are there areas where the current protections might be enhanced? We need that spelled out at an early stage.
What is the timetable? What is the proposed scope and level of detail of the prelegislative scrutiny? The Justice Committee, which I chair, will be most anxious to be involved in that scrutiny, but other parts of the House will also rightly have to have an input. We also need carefully to address the impact across the whole United Kingdom, because the United Kingdom was a signatory to the convention, and the Human Rights Act was a United Kingdom piece of legislation. It is important that we reflect on all those matters.
I am not perhaps as pessimistic about the prospects for constructive change as my right hon. and learned Friend. Perhaps that is because I am a West Ham supporter, so optimism must come naturally to me—something that you, as a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, will understand very well, Mr Betts.
I am glad my right hon. and learned Friend is a optimist—he may need to be in the present circumstances. One subject we may be able to address in making any changes is extraterritoriality, under article 1, particularly with regard to the military. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) may have touched on that when he talked about the possibility of other legislation being the way forward.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that promotion, which is unexpected and undeserved on both counts. I always look forward to the future with optimism as far as those two matters are concerned. Extraterritoriality is an important issue. It has exercised those involved in a number of recent Court judgments, and it is precisely the sort of area where we might find a proportionate and sensible way forward.
I hope we will engage with the profession on these issues, because there is a great deal of knowledge and understanding about this issue. We tend to regard what happens in the Strasbourg Court as a bit of a sideshow, and that would be a mistake, whatever side of the argument we are on.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election as Chair of the Select Committee, and I wish him well. He talked about potential reform of the Human Rights Act. Does he envisage, and is he optimistic about, there being additional rights, or does he think the Government intend to take away rights that are in the Act?
That is the question the Government need to answer. The phrase “based on the convention” is important. I do not say that every bit of the convention’s wording is absolutely perfect in modern terms, but I think most of us would say that we want the principles that underpin the convention to be incorporated in any proposals. For what it is worth, my early urging to the Government is that the closer they stick to the convention’s wording in anything incorporated into British law, the better, because that would give us great clarity and security. Then we must look at the point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) about the unintended consequences that were not always seen through in the Act, to do with extraterritoriality and related matters. I hope we will get assurances from the Minister on that point.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on bringing it forward.
It is my belief that we are elected to this place to do the best for our constituents. The best may not always translate as the most popular, but these are the choices that must be made by Members of this House. I cannot say that no good has come from the Human Rights Act—this would be an untruth—but I can, and as an MP I should, question whether it is the best form of rights protection. My conclusion may not please everyone in the House, but it is something that my party and I have deeply considered. We do not believe that it is the best way of protecting rights.
The Democratic Unionist party has long been critical of the Human Rights Act and the way in which it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. The Act has been abused by criminals and terrorists, who have used spurious challenges to avoid deportation. It has failed to protect the rights of innocent victims adequately. We want laws that assist victims to secure justice rather than enabling perpetrators to avoid it. We support, as a minimum, the reform of the Human Rights Act, to remove the “right to family life” defence against deportation upon conviction for a serious criminal offence.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his party is part of the institutions? His party leader is the First Minister in Northern Ireland and he is part of those institutions, as is his party. That is deeply enshrined with the Human Rights Act and the Good Friday agreement. Both are co-related; one cannot exist without the other, and central to all of that is human rights.
Obviously I would not agree with that. We certainly do not adhere to or support the Belfast agreement. We have no affinity with it whatsoever—I will speak about that later, if I can.
Whereas the Human Rights Act in principle was a good thing, once lawyers became involved it changed. A researcher in my office has a BA in law and I understand that she and I agree about this. I sometimes feel when I hear of European judgements that the status of our own judiciary is perpetually challenged by cases in courts where some of those presiding have questionable experience and make questionable rulings. How often do we hear of a European ruling and ask, “How can this be?”? Many is the time I ask this, and others do as well. The ruling on the Abu Qatada case has been mentioned, and it has been revealed that seven out of the 11 top judges at the Court have little or no judicial experience. Our British judges have to go through all the years of professional experience before they get to that position, yet some of the other judges making those decisions do not have the necessary experience or qualifications. How can we accept judicial rulings by those who are not in a position to do their job? That is one of my major reasons for opposing the enforcement of the Human Rights Act over our own law and rulings.
Mr Betts, I am conscious that others want to speak, and I want to give them the chance.
Four-hundred and twenty-five foreign national prisoners won their appeals against deportation
“primarily on the grounds of Article 8”.
I have some concerns about article 8; perhaps the Minister will give us his thoughts about that.
In response to those who say that any amendment of the Act would be a breach of the Belfast agreement, my answer is short and clear—I am sure that the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) will listen carefully to this. The DUP did not support the Belfast agreement and has no affinity with it whatsoever. In fact, it has long argued that the United Kingdom should have a Bill of Rights that recognises and respects the diversity of the devolved arrangements across the country. The more pressing challenges that face the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland relate to the £2 million per week penalties being incurred because Sinn Fein has reneged on the Stormont Castle agreement—an agreement, incidentally, that the party of the hon. Member for South Down has adhered to as well. Yet she tells us off for not supporting the Act, when she and her party have not acted on what they signed up to in the Stormont Castle agreement, depriving us of £2 million that could be used to employ more nurses and teachers.
The DUP is fully committed to creating a society in which people are safe, secure and protected. We are also working to tilt the balance away from the criminals and towards the innocent victims of crime. That is where our focus will be. For too long people have felt as though the forces of law and order are not fully on their side. We are working to change that. Whether the hindrance lies at a local, national or European level, we want it tackled. It is for that reason that the DUP and I firmly believe that the Human Rights Act cannot continue as it is.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on obtaining the debate. Were he, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and I sitting as a three-man court of appeal, I should simply say, “I agree with my brothers and have nothing further to add,” but since we are not and I have a few minutes to say something, I think I shall.
First, the political reality is that there is no majority in this House, and there certainly is not in the other place, for a repeal of the Human Rights Act—still less for our removal from the European convention. The second point to think about was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), although perhaps the speed with which he spoke slightly confused things: there is a world of difference between attempting to repeal or amend an Act of Parliament and resiling or removing ourselves from an international treaty. That comes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about the Good Friday agreement and other devolved questions. In so far as those are matters of treaty, there is not much that we can sensibly do in the House of Commons, apart from talking about it, to amend them or remove ourselves from them; but it strikes me that that feeds into the political reality. We are not going to unpick the devolution settlement at the behest of a tabloid newspaper that finds the word “Europe” disobliging.
There are several things that we need to think about, which I have discussed before, in relation to the problem. The question is a mixture of politics and law. I truly confess that there are plenty of lawyers who do not like politicians because they find them thoughtless, intemperate and political; and plenty of politicians who have not condescended yet to read the Human Rights Act, still less the convention. There is therefore a gap between people’s state of knowledge and their prejudices. Politicians need to arbitrate that difference.
Perhaps the most important question that we need to ask is what the point of the exercise is. Is it necessary, and what will it achieve? Well, it will achieve an awful lot of political angst, a split in the Conservative party and a disagreement across the Chamber to little effect. At some point we will have to work out whether it is all worth the candle. Yes, of course there are things that one can do to tinker with an Act of Parliament. One should pay more attention to section 2; one should understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) a moment ago about the human rights regime and our armed services. There are all sorts of sensible things that we could talk about, but we do not need to waste the next four and a half years of this Parliament banging our heads against an impenetrable brick wall to no effect.
Thank goodness we have my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary here to handle the flaming cauldron, and carry it carefully, like—mixing my metaphors—a delicate Ming vase all the way to the next election, where he can quietly lock it in a cupboard and forget about it.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for bringing this debate to the Chamber. It is important to recognise the significant journey that human rights law has made in recent years, but such developments speak volumes about the necessity to ensure that all protections are given to individuals in society.
It speaks volumes about the Government’s priorities that they would rather unravel the substantial and important progress that has been made than protect and enhance people’s rights. They would rather ignore the voices echoing from the Opposition Benches on austerity, tackling poverty and building a fairer society, and instead focus on a narrowly defined British Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, those of us elected to champion the voices of our constituents are faced with ensuring that individuals can face a challenging job market that rewards big business while the poorest in our society struggle to put food on their table to feed their children. Is this really the priority of a Government faced with real challenges here in the UK?
It is true that one of the most important roles of any Government is to ensure the safety of their citizens, but where do we draw the line between security and the infringement of people’s liberty and rights? Although I concede A. V. Dicey’s principle of sovereignty that suggests that Parliament may
“make or unmake any law”,
perhaps we could imagine for a second that even Dicey might call into question the balance of the rights of citizens and that it ought not to be undermined by the belief that a currently undefined British Bill of Rights could provide any more guarantees or protections of the rights of citizens than the Human Rights Act.
We ought to focus on enhancing and improving the existing Act to ensure that the rights and responsibilities of citizens are not neglected but respected. A British Bill of Rights raises serious concerns and costs, which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has already raised. Such a Bill would inevitably weaken the existing human rights safeguards and protections, most likely affecting the most vulnerable citizens in our society.
It is easy to take for granted the European convention on human rights and the crucial protections that is has guaranteed thus far, but we must remember the important role played by the 1998 Act and the rights that it has guaranteed. Victims of domestic abuse have received better protection. Victims of rape have been given proper police investigations. Disabled individuals who have been affected by the welfare reforms imposed by the Government have the right to challenge legislation that they deem unfit and unfair—most notably the bedroom tax. Social housing tenants have the opportunity to challenge decisions that affect their right to safe and secure housing. Members of the LGBTI community have overcome discrimination. Families of military personnel killed on active service have been given recourse for the supply of the out-of-date equipment that has cost lives and affected the loved ones left behind.
For all the reasons I have outlined, we must protect the European convention on human rights. We must strive and continue to be a tolerant, compassionate and equal nation, with a progressive and outward vision in a global context.
I look forward to having a British Bill of Rights on the statute book. That was in our manifesto, and it would only increase cynicism in politics if we abandoned such a clear manifesto commitment.
When the Bill is introduced, I hope it will include the word “responsibilities”. One thing that really annoys constituents is that the principle of equity, which runs right through English law like a golden thread, is not applied in very many human rights cases. People want a sense of fairness. They particularly want to ensure that those who come before the courts do so with clean hands, and that if they do not, they cannot expect to be treated in the same way as those who do.
The issue is not compliance with the strict words of the European convention on human rights—they are not an issue, because we all agree with them. The only reason why one country in Europe is currently not a member of the Council of Europe is that Belarus refuses to disapply the death penalty. That is a fundamental breach of the legislation.
More difficult is the judicial interpretation of the original words of the convention, which now extend into what is effectively judge-made law, over which Parliament and the people have no control. We are all familiar with the issue of voting rights for prisoners and how it was specifically excluded in the discussions leading up to the signing of the protocol. The sentence of life imprisonment was clearly introduced as a substitute for the death penalty, but even that is now being undermined by the European Court of Human Rights saying that there should be the opportunity for a review, rather than life meaning life.
I am not going to take any interventions, because even if I get an extra minute it will mean others will lose out.
Article 31.1 of the Vienna convention on the law of treaties makes it clear that
“a treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its objects and purpose”.
If the European Court of Human Rights was doing that, there would not be a problem.
The UK Government are in close contact with the thinking of the European Court of Justice. In its opinion earlier this year, the European Court of Justice said that the EU could not join the European convention on human rights because of concerns that the interpretation of human rights law in Europe would then rest with the European convention on human rights rather than the European Court of Justice. We are in exactly the same position in this country: we want our own Supreme Court to interpret the treaty, rather than to leave it to an external body.
The Government are on the right course and should not be deterred by the siren words we have heard from so many people this afternoon.
Order. We have time for only two more speeches before we go to the Front-Bench speakers. I am sorry that I cannot call everyone who wants to speak, but I will call everyone who asked in advance. That should be a helpful tip for Members in future.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on initiating this debate and introducing it so thoughtfully.
I hesitate to give any opinion in such an eminent gathering as this, but it seems to me that this debate is not between those who support human rights and those who do not—the lovers of free speech and defenders of liberty and the right to trial on one side and the torturers, summary executioners and deniers of basic freedoms on the other. It is not that sort of debate; it is simply about the place in national law of human rights and the related conventions. It is about the place of basic standards of morality and legality in public life, lawmaking and social action, and the fundamental principles by which those things can be judged.
Not everyone believes in human rights functioning in a fundamentalist way. I do not know how many Members read Matthew Parris’s article in The Times, but he described human rights as desiderata. John Stuart Mill and the utilitarians, who are practically saints in liberal circles, described human rights as “nonsense upon stilts”. Reading the Daily Mail, it is sometimes quite easy to see why people say such things. The catalogue of human rights varies and grows. Sometimes the frivolous demands of vexatious people are expressed as though they were human rights. Even when there is agreement on the wording, there is often difference over how the words are to be interpreted: more or less every nation on the planet has signed up to the United Nations declaration of human rights, but they interpret them in their own idiosyncratic ways.
Crucially, it is very hard to sort out cases where laws and actions to protect one basic human right conflict with or impact detrimentally on another. It is hard to weigh and prioritise such matters. All the important difficult issues have been of that nature—for example, weighing up the right to family life against national security, or the right to public participation through voting against the justifiable expectation that prisoners will be punished and forfeit something.
It appears to me that the European convention on human rights is grounded in a time when things were a lot clearer than they are now. The previous theory inherited something from the natural law theory of the middle ages and then disposed of it, but when we got to the end of the second world war, there was a clear expectation that minimal standards had to be set, against which to benchmark any nation’s behaviour, even if it was validated by the nation’s own law. At that time, the rule of law on the continent had effectively been the rule of terror. I cannot see anything in the convention that lays down a social blueprint for any nation; it simply defines the conditions for a just society. Some of the rules are uncontentious—almost formal—and some are more arguable and substantive, but no one has questioned today the idea of such benchmarking. No one in the entire debate has suggested that it does not play an important role in encouraging a civilised and tolerant society.
Having recognised that, on which there seems to be consensus, the next questions are how it should be policed, who does it and who enforces it. We would all agree that it could not be nations themselves as they would in effect be marking their own homework. As some have suggested, it could be a national judiciary that carries out that role, with or without further appeal, but that assumes a universal cultural independence from Government and that judiciaries are the same across Europe, both of which cannot be assumed. It would also defeat the purpose of international validation of what an individual country is doing, and it fails to apply effective pressure on rogue states and their behaviour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to salute the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the former Secretary of State for Scotland, for initiating and leading this debate. He dealt with the devolution issue extraordinarily well and none of us disagreed with his fundamental point that to unravel devolution agreements by challenging the Human Rights Act would not be wise.
I ask the Minister for his interpretation of “taking into account”. We need clarification of that, following the exchanges of this debate. When I tell someone that I am taking their views into account, I am usually saying, “I heard, but I’m not going to do it.” We need to recognise that that is really what the phrase means. That is why it is probably unwise of the Government to be quite so controversial in their proposals.
The other issue to consider is what a Bill of Rights looks like. Without giving a history lesson, we already have a Bill of Rights. It was passed in 1689, but it did not actually do the job that the Government will have in mind for any future such Bill. The danger is that once rights start to be defined they can be restricted. Calibrating or describing rights is not as easy as it first appears. The risk is that a Bill of Rights could be too tight or too loose. It is important that we see what the Bill of Rights might look like.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem with the rights debate in Britain has been that, unlike countries such as South Africa, we have failed to debate what to do when rights clash? For example, the right to private and family life and the right to protest clash, and we in Britain have not debated how to deal with those clashes.
My way at looking at things in terms of English law is that I prefer to assume that I have a right unless Parliament has told me that I do not. That is how we should be operating.
Doing something different from what we have done in the past also has international implications. As we have already heard, the architect of the European Court of Human Rights was a former Conservative Home Secretary who was not a libertarian in the true sense of the word. Leaving the Court would be to depart from that tradition and would risk our international reputation while making it harder still for other nations to think in terms of their own aspirations for rights, and might not discourage others in their intention not to give rights. The issue is not only legal, but one of foreign policy.
In short, we must consider the matter carefully. I would prefer to have legislation that improves what we already have, rather than undermining and changing the structure that we have become used to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate on an important topic. He rightly said that human rights are part of the UK’s constitutional architecture, he touched on their significance for the devolved settlement and he asked us what we are seeking to achieve through appeal of the Human Rights Act and what the Government’s future intentions are regarding the European convention on human rights.
The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) made a valid point when he said that repeal here is an extremely difficult project that could deliver limited benefits. He also asked what we are trying to achieve—a question that has been echoed by many speakers. The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) stated that our repealing the Human Rights Act would send out the wrong message.
I am conscious of the time limit, so I will quickly move on to my points, which, as the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, particularly relate to the devolved settlement and how it affects Scotland. The SNP has been deeply concerned by recent statements from Ministers that suggest that they believe that the UK Government could repeal the Human Rights Act without reference to the Scottish Parliament. They argue that the Sewel convention would not be engaged because human rights are a reserved matter. That is wrong and legally illiterate. Human rights are not a reserved matter and are not listed as such in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. Schedule 4 to the Scotland Act protects the Human Rights Act against modification by the Scottish Parliament, but human rights per se are not a reserved matter. It was part of Donald Dewar’s scheme that all matters would be devolved unless they were specifically reserved. Human rights are not specifically reserved.
Moreover, human rights are written into the Scotland Act. The European convention on human rights is entrenched in the Act through section 29(2)(d), which provides that an Act of the Scottish Parliament that is incompatible with the ECHR is actually outwith the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. Section 57(2) states:
“A member of the Scottish Executive has no power to make any subordinate legislation, or to do any other act, so far as the legislation or act is incompatible with”
the ECHR. It is therefore incorrect to say that human rights are a reserved matter. They are devolved and I urge the Minister to think carefully about the statements made by his colleagues to the effect that the Sewel convention would not be engaged.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken of a “respect” agenda, and I stand here as one of 56 SNP Members elected at the general election. I urge the Government to consider their respect agenda, to return to the Scotland Act 1998 and to get their lawyers to look at it carefully. They will find that human rights are not a reserved matter and are devolved, and that the Human Rights Act should not be repealed or otherwise interfered with by the British Parliament without first seeking the consent of the Scottish Parliament.
I want to make it clear, however, that the SNP would seek to prevent the repeal of the Human Rights Act for the whole United Kingdom. It is a fundamental issue and we want the Human Rights Act to remain on the statute book for the entire UK because, as the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said, it has brought huge benefit in terms of the accessibility of rights for people in this country. Examples of those rights were provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Betts. I congratulate all who have spoken so eloquently today and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate and bringing the matter before the House before the summer recess. I am going to take an unusual course by endeavouring not to take my full 10 minutes. I will do that because the official Opposition’s position is clear, so I would simply be restating it, whereas the Government’s position is unclear and I am sure that the Minister will want the maximum time to be able to elucidate it.
When I was responding to the debate on the Gracious Speech, I made it clear that we will resist any attempt to undermine or repeal the Human Rights Act, or to detach this country from the European convention. More importantly, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) made a detailed speech on the subject on 16 June, in which she said:
“The Government has signalled that they want to fundamentally undermine the Human Rights Act. This is what lies behind the announcement in the Queen’s Speech that they would be consulting on a ‘British Bill of Rights’. We think that even the consultation is the start of a slippery slope… I give you my assurance that we are going to be clear with the Prime Minister that he must not go ahead with this. I’ve today written to the Prime Minister demanding that he drops these plans and… Their policy is intellectually incoherent and, worse, it’s wrong in principle.”
It would be at best otiose and at worst lèse majesté for me to amplify or qualify what the leader of the party has said.
The real question for the debate is: what are the Government’s intentions and what is the process to get us there? That is particularly important given the contradictory signals coming from the Government almost daily. Days before the Gracious Speech, the repeal of the Human Rights Act was being presaged as one of the centrepieces of the Queen’s Speech, only to be dropped entirely from the first Session’s legislation. We are now promised a consultation—perhaps the Minister will enlighten us as to what form it will take or when it will take place. Will the Minister also publish some of the drafts—I think we are up to about 10 or 14—of the Bill that was being prepared under the coalition Government in private by Martin Howe QC and others on behalf of the Conservative party? Presumably that document will now become a Government one.
The key issue has to be the relationship between the Human Rights Act and the European convention. I will correct, or at least qualify, one thing that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. He said he hoped that Government policy was not the same as it was last October. I wondered about that, so on 4 June I asked that question specifically of the Leader of the House of Commons—he was the person who produced the original documentation. He responded:
“The Conservative party’s policy on human rights has not changed since last October.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 784.]
For those who have not read the document recently, it states something that will no doubt please the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) about the Council of Europe accepting UK demands:
“In the event that we are unable to reach that agreement, the UK would be left with no alternative but to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, at the point at which our Bill comes into effect.”
Is that now Government policy? It is not inconsistent, for example, with what the Home Secretary said two years ago, although it appeared to be inconsistent with what the Prime Minister was saying. According to press reports, the Prime Minister was somewhat “at odds” with the Home Secretary and the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). Now, however, there appears to be some agreement at the top of the Conservative party and the Government that we will at least countenance withdrawal from the European convention, but it is confusing.
The Minister here today gave this response in Justice Questions last week:
“We will legislate for a Bill of Rights to protect our fundamental rights… Our plans do not involve us leaving the convention; that is not our objective”—
only for the sentence to continue—
“but our No. 1 priority is to restore some balance to our human rights laws, so no option is off the table for the future.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 748.]
What is the situation? Within an hour of that reply, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice was on the “World at One” on the BBC saying that it was perfectly possible that we would be withdrawing from the European convention.
I endeavoured to find some record of what the Justice Secretary might have said before coming into his post. This is what I found, from when the convention was incorporated in 2000. I do not know if his views have changed, but interestingly it was written in the context of the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland:
“The Human Rights culture is already spreading in our society, uprooting conventions on which our stability has rested… It supplants common sense and common law, and erodes individual dignity by encouraging citizens to see themselves as supplicants and victims to be pensioned by the state.”
That does not sound like a strong endorsement of human rights, but perhaps the Minister will be able to elucidate in his response.
There are very difficult problems and hurdles. With all due respect to the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, the matters we are discussing are not “theological” ones. Our relationship with supranational law will become an issue if we produce some British Bill of Rights that is the bespoke device of the Justice Secretary and the Minister. Unless they are intending to withdraw from all international treaties and conventions and indeed from the European Court of Justice, whose judgments are far more prescriptive and binding than those of the Strasbourg Court, inevitably there will be two systems running in parallel, a British one and an international one, to both of which our courts will have to pay attention.
The Minister must address the issues raised by the Front-Bench spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), about the devolved Administrations. He must also address some practical problems, such as how he will get his own colleagues and the House of Lords on board and how—perhaps the central point to have come out of today’s debate—he will explain why any of it is necessary in the first place.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) has said that most of the problems that have arisen with the European Court of Human Rights over a period of time are in the process of being, or have been, resolved.
If it is so impossible to have a British Bill of Rights alongside adherence to the convention, why is it the case that Germany, France and almost every other European country have their own constitutions with enshrined charters of rights that sit quite comfortably alongside adherence to the convention?
That question is for the Minister to answer, because we have seen literally nothing from the Government to explain any compatibility. As for the question about “taking into account” raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and how we square the circle between the judgments of the Strasbourg Court, our own higher courts and the sovereignty of Parliament—none of that is in issue any more. The question really, if I may put it back to the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), is this: what is wrong with the existing system that allows the law to evolve and the judiciary in this country to influence judgments of the European Court, often in an entirely beneficial way because of the quality of such judgments? Why are we seeking to retreat from, rather than to advance the cause of international law? Why are we seeking not to have the benefit of international law? It seems to be a little England, or little UK approach, and when the hon. Gentleman reflects on it, he might find himself on the side of those who believe that little needs to change, instead of throwing out an honourable tradition of human rights drawn up over many centuries.
It is an honour and a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate on the future of the Human Rights Act.
I listened with great interest to all the contributions. I shall touch on a few of them, such as that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who gave a powerful speech about some of the risks involved in this enterprise. I detected that he is perhaps not quite as sympathetic to the concept of a Bill of Rights as he was when he was shadow Justice Secretary, but I was heartened to hear that he was offering creative solutions along the way.
The Minister is quite right. In 2009 I worked on a paper with him as my chief of staff about the possibility of a Bill of Rights. As was rightly said, such a Bill of Rights is perfectly possible, but it will not solve the problems or issues that have been the driving force behind the Government’s current project unless we intend to decouple ourselves from the European convention, which, mercifully, I understand not to be our policy. There is the conundrum that my hon. Friend will have to grapple with.
I thought I had detected a slight revival of my right hon. and learned Friend’s former enthusiasm, but perhaps I was too optimistic.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for his contribution. He always speaks powerfully on these issues—I have listened to him speaking on human rights since I joined this House. He took us back to Magna Carta and its modern-day relevance.
I am sure you could.
I also welcome the contribution made by the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). I congratulate him on his election to that post and look forward to being grilled in due course. He counselled us not to treat the Human Rights Act as a holy grail that cannot be questioned. That was a useful injection of common sense into the debate.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who highlighted some of the cases under the HRA that have been of concern to his party. He raised in particular the application of article 8 with regard to deportation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) made some powerful points on section 2 of the Act and on extraterritorial jurisdiction. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) raised the difficult issue of the balance between liberty and security. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) discussed judicial legislation from Strasbourg—he has huge experience of that as a result of his representation on the Council of Europe.
There were other excellent speeches to which I cannot pay individual tribute, but I should also acknowledge the speech made by the shadow Minister, who reiterated his party’s position and lamented the lack of detail in the Government’s current proposals. I say to him gently that one issue with the Human Rights Act, arguably, is that it was rushed through, as it was introduced within six months. As a result of that haste, some problems have now emerged that we were warned of at the Act’s inception. The Government are not going to rush in the way the then Labour Government rushed through the Human Rights Act. We will take a little time, because we want to get it done right rather than quickly.
Most people do not think it was rushed but would say that it was 20 or 30 years too late. The effect of the Act is to incorporate the convention, which it does, to use the phrase of the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), in a very conservative way. What is the problem with that?
The shadow Minister makes an interesting point. If, as a new Government, we had introduced a Bill within six months, it would have been argued that that was too hasty.
On the problems that have arisen as a result, a former shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who is no longer in his place, took to The Daily Telegraph just last year to point out some of the problems with section 2 of the Act:
“Too often, rather than ‘taking into account’ Strasbourg rulings and by implication, finding their own way, our courts have acted as if these rulings were binding on their decisions. As a result, the sovereignty of our courts and the will of Parliament have both been called into question. This needs sorting out.”
If the Labour party has U-turned on that rather thoughtful critique of its own legislation and now, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, believes the Act to be a holy grail that cannot be touched, called into question or criticised at all, there are some questions for Labour to answer. I know hon. Members in the shadow Minister’s party would not all agree on that matter.
I shall take this opportunity to set out the Government’s position. I should say that I have found the debate very valuable at this still formative stage of the Government’s process towards enacting a Bill of Rights. To answer some of the questions put, we will be consulting formally this Session, including with the devolved Administrations—I am aware that there are some issues there—and I hope hon. Members will understand if I do not prejudge that consultation or its terms in my remarks today.
I remind hon. Members that the United Kingdom has a strong tradition of respect for human rights that long predates the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government are proud of that tradition and will be true to it in delivering our reforms. As I explained at Justice questions, our plans do not involve us leaving the convention. That is not our objective. We want to restore some common-sense balance to our human rights, which are out of kilter, so nothing has been taken off the table.
The hon. Gentleman is alluding to the idea of having a middle course between throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as some have described it—tearing up human rights, getting rid of the convention and not replacing it—and trying to reform the current model by looking at the way the convention has been applied and interpreted. There are not huge numbers of objections to the black letter law of the convention’s text, but the way it has been applied and extended is a matter of concern. All that will be the subject of debate and consultation.
I say, in passing, that I hope we never get to the stage where the implementation of law by the courts is entirely to the satisfaction of the Government. Surely the problem is that if we get to a point where we have a British Bill of Rights but remain a contracting party to the European convention, which has a higher standard of human rights protection, anyone dissatisfied with their rights as applied in the UK domestic courts under the British Bill could still have recourse to the wider protection of the European Court in Strasbourg.
The right hon. Gentleman is tempting me to prejudge the substantive content of the Bill and the consultation. He has raised some interesting points, which we will no doubt thrash out in due course; I look forward to that.
I will refer to some of the principal concerns about the Human Rights Act, as that is the subject of the debate. Given the time restraints I will refer to just a few examples from what is by no means an exhaustive list. The first is the exponential expansion of rights that the design of the Human Rights Act, whether tacitly or otherwise, has promoted. It has encouraged a rights inflation that, as has already been acknowledged, has tended to undermine the so-called liberal model of human rights, shifting away from what people like Isaiah Berlin would refer to as negative liberty, or the John Stuart Mill model of shielding the citizen, towards imposing obligations on the state rather than constraining it. If that were in any doubt, the textbooks—I am sure hon. Members across the House are familiar with them—are littered with examples of the celebration of that, whether through the living instrument doctrine in Strasbourg or our own case law.
The practical effect of rights inflation has been to dilute personal responsibility. The growth of rights—the expansion of the realm of rights—increases the power of the individual, however nefarious or otherwise, to trump the good of the rest of society. The more that extends beyond the bedrock of core liberties, the more corrosive the effects. I will give one brief illustration, to highlight the fact that personal responsibility is being eroded or diluted: the claim that the Government’s welfare to work policy amounted to forced labour under the European convention.
I should say straight away that that claim failed, but the fact that it made its way through the UK court system to the Supreme Court is telling. It is striking that lawyers thought they could stretch an article of the convention that was designed, after the experience of concentration camps during world war two, to address grave issues of slavery and forced labour so as to attack the principle of conditionality in welfare reform. It is just one illustration of how the HRA has proved rather malleable material for the ingenious twisting of the basic conception of human rights, rather than simply bringing rights home, which was the Act’s explicit contention.
The second concern I will raise about the HRA is its effect on the rule of law, and in particular the effect that some of the haphazard case law has had on legal certainty. I refer hon. Members to the tragic case of Naomi Bryant, and the review by HM Inspectorate of Probation of the case, which found that the licence conditions placed on Anthony Rice on his release were too lax and noted that lawyers had whittled away the conditions by deploying arguments to do with the Human Rights Act. I will not go into that further—I have the quotes with me but will not read them out—but if anyone wants to look into that case further, they should look at that report.
The third issue I will raise is the way that the Human Rights Act has exposed us unnecessarily to too much judicial legislation from Strasbourg—for example, in the case of prisoner voting. In truth, as we should not make this into some strictly European bogey, there have been examples of domestic judicial legislation as well, about article 8 in particular—we should deal with our home-grown problems, too. That is easy to do without bringing into question our membership of the European convention.
Finally, I hope the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has had the opportunity to read the excellent article by Baroness Faulkner, Liberal Democrat spokesperson on foreign affairs, in May’s edition of Prospect. In case he has not, and for the benefit of this wider audience, I will quote a few choice words:
“Britain can replace the HRA and retain a decent, humane legal system. The human rights lobby has reacted with horror at the government’s proposal. But they are mistaken... A British Bill of Rights is a good idea.”
I do not agree with the whole article but it is well worth a read.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and welcome his contribution. I hope he will not mind if I encourage him to circulate that article among the other members of his party.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the Human Rights Act 1998.