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Human Rights Act 1998

Volume 602: debated on Thursday 26 November 2015

6. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on developing proposals for reform of the Human Rights Act 1998. (902347)

I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including on domestic and international human rights law. I cannot talk about the legal content of those discussions, because, as the House knows, by convention, whether Law Officers have given advice is not disclosed outside Government.

Does the Attorney General agree with his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who said that the European convention on human rights is

“the single most important legal and political instrument for promoting human rights on our planet”?

As I have said a number of times, I have no quarrel whatever with the wording of the European convention on human rights; what I disagree with is the way in which that document has subsequently been interpreted by the Strasbourg Court. That is what the Government want to do something about.

14. The right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), a former Justice Minister and, in the week, a resident of Acton, has said:“I would definitely not want Britain to withdraw from the Convention because it would appear as though the UK was no longer as committed to Human Rights as it in fact is. This would damage our country’s reputation.” Just how will the Attorney General ensure that the Government’s plans to scrap the convention will not weaken the rights of the ordinary British citizen? (902356)

Again, it is important to be clear about what we are talking about. There is a distinction to be made between the Human Rights Act, which we fully intend to get rid of, and the convention, which we do not intend to leave unless we have to. We must do something to ensure that decisions on, for example, who has the franchise in British elections are taken by this House and not by the Court in Strasbourg. Those are the decisions we need to do something about. Of course this country will remain committed to human rights, with or without the Human Rights Act.

I must also point out to the hon. Lady that the Conservative party, in government, has been responsible not only for reducing the length of pre-charge detention to 28 days and for abolishing identity cards—both in response to illiberal measures passed by a Labour Government—but for introducing the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and many other things that clearly demonstrate our commitment to human rights.

That is extremely helpful, but I have concluded over a period that prolixity and lawyers are inseparable.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, if we repealed the Human Rights Act—and even if we withdrew from the European convention on human rights—there is no provision whatever in the statute of the Council of Europe that would automatically force the United Kingdom to leave the Council of Europe?

We will be discussing with our fellow members of the Council of Europe how we might reach a better settlement in relation to the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence. In those discussions, I fully expect that other members of the Council of Europe will wish us to remain within the organisation.

Can the Attorney General reassure the House that a British Bill of Rights would not only protect our existing rights, which are essential in a modern democratic society, but protect us against abuse of the system and the misuse of human rights laws?

I do think that that is the objective. My hon. Friend is right to suggest that there is a real danger to support for human rights, which we wish to see as widespread and full-throated in this country, if it appears to many of our constituents that the concept is being abused through the sorts of cases that none of us fully believes to be genuine human rights cases. We must do something about that.

As part of developing these proposals, the question of whether the new British Bill of Rights will have legal application in Scotland is absolutely crucial to Scotland’s constitutional settlement. Can the Attorney General give me an indication of whether it will apply in Scotland, and if it will, does he agree that a legislative consent motion would be required from the Scottish Parliament to give it that legal application?

The hon. Gentleman and I have already discussed the question of consultation with the Scottish authorities, and I am fully in favour—as are colleagues in the Ministry of Justice—of ensuring that the devolved Administrations are fully engaged in that consultation process. As to whether a legislative consent motion would be required, that would depend entirely on the nature of the proposals. We have not yet seen them, and it is important that we should consider them properly when we do.