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Bill of Rights

Volume 599: debated on Tuesday 8 September 2015

We will bring forward proposals on a Bill of Rights this autumn. They will be subject to full consultation. The preparation is going well. Given the hon. Gentleman’s excellent work on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I look forward to engaging seriously with him on the substance.

When the Minister’s predecessor published his plans for reform of the Human Rights Act last October, the right hon. and learned Members for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) complained that they contained “a number of howlers” and that they were “unworkable” and “bewildering”. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to listen to his esteemed colleagues and to admit that those plans were written on the back of a cigarette packet from the very start?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I have to say that the Human Rights Act was also rushed. There was no period of consultation and it was introduced into Parliament in just six months, which is why it has proved flawed in practice. We will take our time to get the plans right, and we will take on board all the views that have been expressed. We want to restore some balance to our human rights regime, and that is what a Bill of Rights will achieve.

Earlier this year, the Attorney-General described the European convention on human rights as “an excellent document”, and I am sure that the Minister would agree. Our Human Rights Act allows British judges to interpret the convention in the British context. Will the Minister explain precisely how a new British Bill of Rights will change that situation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows, there are many different ways in which we can implement the ECHR in domestic law. There are 47 states party to the European convention, and they all do it slightly differently. We want to see greater authority for the Supreme Court—the Labour Government set up the Supreme Court and we do not think that it should be subordinated—and a greater respect for the legislative role of hon. Members in this place.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is totally wrong for criminals and those who wish to do our country harm to be able to use the Human Rights Act against us? Therefore, does he agree that it is important that the new British Bill of Rights balances the rights of citizens that were not invented in 1998—with the responsibilities of the citizens that existed then and indeed that exist today?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to protect fundamental rights, but we do not want to see them distorted by judicial legislation or abused by serious and serial criminals. Above all, we do not want to see human rights become dirty words in the minds of the public. That is what the Human Rights Act led to; our Bill of Rights will restore some balance.

Will the Minister settle the nerves of some Members of this House by confirming that human rights existed in this country before the Human Rights Act and will continue to exist after the repeal of that Act?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The convention already reflects a huge amount of the common law tradition but, as he says, Britain was a member of the convention and had a long tradition of respect for human rights before the Human Rights Act, and we shall have after it.

22. The rights contained in the European convention on human rights have been incorporated into our domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998. Can the Minister guarantee that the British Bill of Rights will contain all the same rights as our citizens currently enjoy? (901233)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I will not be drawn on the substance and detail of our proposals—[Hon. Members: “Why?”] We will have a consultation and there will be ample time. We want to retain fundamental rights reflected in the convention, but we need to ensure their sensible application and proper respect for the Supreme Court of this country as well as for the democratic role of hon. Members in this place and their legislative function. Our Bill of Rights and proposals will be considering those areas.

At Justice questions on 23 June, the Secretary of State said that human rights are a reserved matter under the devolution settlement. At a debate in Westminster Hall on 30 June, I urged the UK Government to reconsider that position, having regard to the precise terms of the Scotland Act 1998. Will the Minister confirm that his advisers have had the opportunity to study schedule 5 to the Act over the recess? Will he now accept that human rights are not listed there as a reserved matter and that if this Government therefore want to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights they will be required first to consult the Scottish Parliament according to the Sewel convention?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. There will be full consultation and we are aware of the concerns that she and her party have raised. Revising the Human Rights Act can be done only by the UK Government, but at the same time the implementation of human rights issues are already substantially devolved to Scotland. Let me give one example. The Scottish Government have been criticised for failing to hold mandatory fatal accident inquiries when someone dies in a mental health institution. That is just one illustration, but the SNP needs to stop promoting the fiction that human rights in Scotland totally depend on or are threatened by Westminster and to focus more on living up to its own responsibilities.

Many of the Minister’s colleagues have much to say on human rights, but the Lord Chancellor has remained uncharacteristically guarded. At the time the Act came into effect, he said:

“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.”

Does the Minister agree with that, and does it now represent Government policy?

That is a very interesting set of insights into a range of problems with the Human Rights Act. There are two sorts of issues: how the Strasbourg Court operates, and how the Human Rights Act operates domestically. Wise people in the shadow Justice Secretary’s party, from the noble Lord Irvine, one of the architects of the Act, to the former shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), have pointed out the flaws in the Act and agreed that we need to look at them. We should have a sensible debate about its replacement, not silly point scoring or shrill scaremongering.

Rather than our listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) being misquoted, perhaps the Minister would like to answer some questions. This week, leading civil liberties organisations warned that parts of the Trade Union Bill breached human rights, and last week the EU warned that countries such as Russia would take the lead from a British opt-out. This is very serious. Is that what the Government plan for the Human Rights Act: an attack on fundamental freedoms at home and an encouragement to human rights abuses abroad?

A Labour Government enacted ID cards, and a Labour Government proposed 90-day detention without charge. The interim leader of the Labour party, the shadow Home Secretary and the shadow Justice Secretary voted for both those measures. We scrapped ID cards and cut detention without charge; we will take no lectures on liberty from the Labour party.

The Minister will be aware that there has been some controversy surrounding proposals for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. I wonder whether he intends incorporating a Northern Ireland section within a British Bill of Rights.

We are very mindful of the issues relating to a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. We will be consulting widely, including with Northern Ireland politicians, and will be very sensitive to ensure that we do nothing that would have a disruptive effect in the region.