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Human Rights Act 1998

Volume 600: debated on Thursday 15 October 2015

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on proposals for reform of the Human Rights Act 1998. (901576)

2. What steps he plans to take to ensure that proposals for reform of the Human Rights Act 1998 meet the UK’s domestic and international human rights obligations. (901577)

The Justice Secretary and I meet regularly to discuss important issues of common interest, including on domestic and international human rights law. I am not, as the House knows, able to talk about any legal content of those discussions, because, by convention, whether the Law Officers have given advice or not is not disclosed outside government.

The public need to be aware that withdrawing from the Human Rights Act does not mean that we will withdraw from human rights, because people will still be able to have those rights. It is just that rather than get them in British courts they will have to traipse off to Strasbourg to get them. The British public need to be made aware of the situation. The issue, of course, is about the convention. Are the Government proposing to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, a move that would remove human rights in this country, rather than just from the Human Rights Act?

The hon. Gentleman is right to a certain extent, but of course he will have to wait for the proposals that the Justice Secretary will make on human rights reform. The other point for the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind is that it is not just the Court in Strasbourg that protects the human rights of British citizens. The British courts do, too, and I believe we can rely on the robustness and good sense of British judges to protect those rights.

Because so many people in my constituency had written to me expressing their concerns about the Government’s plans on this issue, I organised a meeting during the recess. The dozens of people who came along had one simple question, which I hope the Attorney General will be able to answer: which of the rights currently contained within the Human Rights Act would he and the Government wish to see excluded from a British Bill of Rights?

Again, as the hon. Gentleman has heard me say, he will have to wait for the precise proposals we are going to make. It is worth pointing out that the rights he is talking about are found not in the Human Rights Act, but in the European convention on human rights. The Government have made it clear, as I have on previous occasions, that we do not object to the content of the convention—we object to the way it is interpreted.

One important issue in terms of the credibility of the European Court of Human Rights is the quality of the judges. We are shortly to appoint a new British judge, so can the Attorney General assure us that we will ensure that we have a judge of the very highest quality appointed? Unfortunately, the quality some of the appointments from other jurisdictions, not ours, have in the past caused concerns to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

My hon. Friend is entirely right that the quality of the judiciary matters hugely, in Strasbourg and elsewhere. As he has heard me say, we share confidence in the quality of the British judiciary, and I hope very much that one of those excellent judges will be prepared to serve in Strasbourg so that our point of view can be clearly represented.

Does the Attorney General agree that the most convincing argument as to why this Government must press ahead with this move as quickly as possible is set out on page 60 of the Conservative party manifesto? It states:

“The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights.”

Some 11.3 million people voted for that and they will expect it to be carried out quickly.

My hon. Friend will know that I share his enthusiasm for this reform, and I stood on that manifesto, too, and believe in it. But it is important also to make sure that we get this reform right and that we have the details worked out before we announce what we wish to do. There will of course also be an opportunity for all Members of this House to comment on what is proposed, because I know that the Justice Secretary intends to consult on the matter.

The proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act and the potential withdrawal from the ECHR has serious constitutional implications for Scotland. Has the Attorney General seen the proposals and will he be delivering legal advice before they are published in the public domain?

As the hon. Gentleman has heard me say to the Select Committee, I would certainly expect to see the proposals before they are published. He is right, of course, that the devolution consequences of any changes that might be made are significant or potentially significant, depending on what is done. I am afraid that, until we see what is proposed, it is difficult to assess exactly what those consequences might be.

When my constituents say, “Philip, we voted Conservative because we wanted to get rid of the Human Rights Act, when is it going to happen?” what should I tell them?

My hon. Friend can tell his constituents, as we should all tell our constituents, that manifesto promises matter, and this Government intend to honour their manifesto. Of course, a manifesto does not all have to be delivered in the first six months of government. We will seek to do so as soon as possible. I know that the Justice Secretary and his colleagues are working very hard on bringing forward proposals.

Does the Attorney General accept that the continuing uncertainty about whether the UK will remain a signatory to the ECHR is itself damaging? Given that the proposal for a British Bill of Rights has been around in the Conservative party for a considerable time, why cannot the Attorney General be certain and tell us whether the UK will remain a signatory to the ECHR or not?

I do not accept that that uncertainty is damaging. What is happening is that we are seeking a better settlement on the arrangements at Strasbourg. We believe that, on issues such as prisoner voting, it is important that this House, not the Court in Strasbourg, should make the decision. That requires a discussion with the Council of Europe. That discussion will take place. It is important that we on the Conservative Benches at least say that the status quo is unacceptable and that we need to do something about it. If the Opposition believe that the status quo is acceptable, they should make that clear.

Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is something of a veteran at chuntering from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of the thrust of the Government Front-Bench team’s position, but he will have his opportunity, on his feet, in due course.