(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Office if she will make a statement on the UK’s membership of the European convention on human rights.
I am answering this urgent question today on behalf of the Home Secretary, but my right hon. Friend will be making a statement to this House on the Hillsborough inquest findings tomorrow. Mr Speaker, I hope that it is in order for me to make a brief comment on that subject before I turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s question.
As the House knows, the inquest jury has now returned its verdict. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in thanking the jurors for the considerable public service that they have performed. As a result, this morning I have written to Members advising that care be exercised when making public statements, to ensure that nothing is said that suggests that any individual or organisation has been found to be criminally liable. Ultimately, a jury in a criminal trial may need to decide that issue, and it is important that nothing is said that may prejudice the right to a fair trial, or make it more difficult to pursue appropriate prosecutions.
On the subject of this urgent question, the United Kingdom is a founder member of the European convention on human rights, and lawyers from the United Kingdom were instrumental in the drafting of the European convention. We are signatories to the convention and we have been clear throughout that we have no objections to the text of the convention; it is indeed a fine document and the Government are firmly of the view that the rights that it enshrines are rights that British citizens and others should continue to hold as part of a reformed human rights framework.
However, this Government were elected with a mandate to reform and modernise the UK human rights framework: the 2015 Conservative party manifesto said that a Conservative Government would scrap the Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights. As with all elements of our manifesto, we intend to meet that commitment in the course of this Parliament. Members will be aware that we have set out our intention to consult on the future of the UK’s human rights framework both in this country and abroad, and that consultation will be published in due course. We will fully consult on our proposals before introducing legislation; in doing so, we will welcome constructive contributions from all parts of the House.
The intention of reform is to protect human rights, to prevent the abuse of human rights law and to restore some common sense to the system. The Prime Minister has been clear throughout that we
“rule out absolutely nothing in getting that done”.
Our preference, though, is to seek to achieve reforms while remaining members of the European convention. Our reforms will focus on the expansionist approach to human rights by the Strasbourg court and under the Human Rights Act, but although we want to remain part of the ECHR, we will not stay in at any cost. We have been clear that if we cannot achieve a satisfactory settlement within the ECHR, we may have no option but to consider withdrawal.
However, the question before the people of the United Kingdom in June—again, thanks to this Government—is not about our future membership of the European convention on human rights, but about our future membership of the European Union. It is important that, in taking that significant decision, people do not conflate those separate questions.
Let me make one thing absolutely clear: the United Kingdom has a proud tradition of respect for human rights that long pre-dates the Human Rights Act—and, indeed, the European convention on human rights. Any reforms that we make will maintain that protection. Those are not just words. This Government and the coalition Government who preceded them have a strong record on human rights, both here and abroad.
We brought forward the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to protect some of the most vulnerable and exploited people in our society and to punish those responsible for that exploitation. We have fought to promote and protect human rights internationally. We are one of the leading members of the UN Human Rights Council, leading negotiations to set up international investigations into human rights abuses in Syria and elsewhere. We have transformed the fight against sexual violence in conflict, persuading more than150 states to agree for the first time that sexual violence should be recognised as a grave breach of the Geneva convention. We have been leading the world on the business and human rights agenda: we are one of the first states to argue for the UN’s “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”, and the first state in the world to implement them through a national action plan.
That is a track record of which we can justifiably be proud, and it is that track record on which we will build when we set out proposals for the reform of the human rights framework in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to the Attorney General for that answer. I should make it clear that I hold him in the very highest regard; I enjoyed working with him as a Minister in the previous Government. But he is not the Home Secretary, and he should not be responding to the urgent question today. The Home Secretary was the one who could make the speech yesterday and she can, apparently, come and make a statement tomorrow. She should be here today. Yesterday she went rogue; today she has gone missing.
There is total confusion at the heart of Government policy. What the Attorney General has just said at the Dispatch Box contradicts clearly what has been said previously. Yesterday the Home Secretary said:
“The ECHR can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights. So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this: if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.”
That contradicts what the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), who has responsibility for human rights, previously told the House at Justice questions and in a succession of Westminster Hall debates. On 30 June, he said:
“Our plans do not involve us leaving the convention; that is not our objective”—[Official Report, 30 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 426WH.]
Clearly, there has been a major shift in Government policy and this House should have been the first to hear about it. The Home Secretary tells us that she wants to remain in the European Union but leave the convention; the Under-Secretary of State for Justice wants to leave the European Union but remain in the convention; and the Lord Chancellor wants to leave the European Union, stay in the convention, but ignore the jurisprudence of the Court. Thank goodness we do not have the instability of a coalition Government any more.
It has been apparent for some time that everything in Government thinking is seen through the prism of the European Union referendum. Now it seems that the Home Secretary has taken that to the next level. She has an eye on the next election—the Conservative leadership election.
To be a member of the European Union requires us to be a party to the European convention. How is the Home Secretary’s speech yesterday consistent with that policy? The devolved settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have the European convention hard-wired into them. They are required to abide by the convention. How can that be done if the United Kingdom as a country is no longer a party to the convention? Does the Attorney General, a decent man who genuinely respects human rights, honestly want to see his country and mine stand alone with Belarus against the convention?
May I start by returning the right hon. Gentleman’s compliments? I very much enjoyed serving in government with him and I have the highest regard for him as an individual. He is a little unfair about coalition government; in my experience, it was not unstable much of the time. We should recognise—he and I, and all other Members of the House—that what we did in coalition was to produce pieces of legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act that recognised the real actions we could take in pursuit of defending human rights, and this Government will continue that course.
It is not right to say, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, that there is confusion on this policy. I have set it out and he was here in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Justice did the same. There is no confusion here. What has been said throughout—by the Prime Minister and all other Ministers—is that we rule nothing out in seeking to achieve the policy objective that we have set and for which we have a clear mandate from the recent general election.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about membership of the European Union. It is not, I am afraid, in any way clear that membership of the European Union requires membership of the European convention on human rights; as with most of these things—he and I are both lawyers—he will understand that there are considerable legal complexities, so that is certainly not a clear statement that I or he can make.
Let me simply say this to the right hon. Gentleman: what the Home Secretary was doing yesterday—in a speech with which, I suspect, he broadly agreed, and which I certainly found made a very persuasive case for remaining in the European Union—was setting out some of the difficulties with the human rights landscape as it stands. We think there are considerable difficulties: there is an absence of common sense and there have been cases that have demonstrated that human rights law is headed in the wrong direction. Restoring that common sense is the objective of the entire Government.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that our fight against terrorism and excessive immigration has been persistently undermined by not only the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg but the European Court of Justice adjudicating on the charter of fundamental rights, and that the only answer is to leave the European Union?
I certainly agree that there have been cases in both Luxembourg and Strasbourg with which we have found difficulty and which we have sought to contest. It is certainly right, as my hon. Friend suggests, that not everything about our membership of the European Union is wonderful, and the Home Secretary made that point very clearly yesterday. However, it is a question of deciding whether, on balance, it is right or wrong to be in the European Union—whether, on balance, it is better or worse for the United Kingdom to be there—and he and I have come to different conclusions on that.
On my hon. Friend’s specific point about the charter of fundamental rights, he will know that the charter covers areas where European law is applicable; it does not cover other areas, so it is not quite the same as our membership of the European convention on human rights.
One thing we can say about this Government is that we are not short of a choice of policy on the European convention on human rights. The Prime Minister reminded us yesterday that he wants to see reform of the ECHR—not, we note, withdrawal. The former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who is on the sensible wing of the Tory party, called the ECHR a
“central pillar of foreign policy.”
When the Ministry of Justice clarified its position in February—that took some time—its line was:
“Our plans do not involve leaving the convention”—
and the Justice Secretary has repeated that today. However, the Home Secretary was absolutely clear yesterday that we should leave the ECHR, whatever the outcome of the EU referendum. What status do the Home Secretary’s remarks have? Are they Government policy? Do they bind the MOJ and the Government, or is it just the Home Office that is coming out of the convention?
It is always a pleasure to see the Attorney General, and I mean no disrespect when I say that this is rather like “Hamlet” without the prince—or the princess. Why could the Home Secretary, or even the Lord Chancellor, not have clarified Government policy, as they have caused the confusion? [Interruption.] It would be comic if it were not tragic.
The Home Secretary has set out a series of legal nonsenses. She claims there is no connection between the EU and the ECHR, but it is a requirement of EU membership that countries joining the EU sign up to the ECHR. She elides the fact that European Court of Human Rights judgments are advisory and that the UK Parliament remains sovereign. She wrongly dismisses the importance of Britain’s membership of the convention as an example to Putin and his ilk, downplaying this country’s record on human rights and its influence in Europe. She also ignores the success of the Human Rights Act in incorporating the ECHR into UK law, giving a remedy to vulnerable people suffering discrimination.
I thought the legal, moral and practical arguments had persuaded the Government to abandon attempts to leave the ECHR. We are not going to deal with the legal and technical arguments today, but will the Attorney General say when the consultation will be published so that we can get down to that? Will he at least clarify today what the Government’s policy is? If what the Home Secretary said is not Government policy, what is the status of her remarks? Are they just a stump speech for the Tory party leadership?
It is, of course, an immense pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman too. I pass over what I am sure my hon. Friends, at least, will regard as the supreme irony of being lectured by a member of the Labour party about unity and common purpose.
What the hon. Gentleman will find is that I am saying, the Home Secretary is saying and the Lord Chancellor is saying that the status quo on human rights law is not acceptable so we are bringing forward proposals for reform. We will do that when they are ready. The contrast is marked between what Conservative Members say, which is that there is a deficit of common sense in much of human rights law, and what Labour Members say, which is that the status quo is fine, all is well and we should leave it all alone. The hon. Gentleman will find that many of his constituents, like many of mine, do not think the status quo is acceptable and do wish to see reform. That is what we had a mandate for in the general election, and that is what this Government will deliver.
Does not this unholy muddle demonstrate the trouble we get into when we contract out our policy to the tabloid leader writers? Is it not the truth that the simplicities that suit them override this immensely complex issue and that our nation should send out a message about our commitment to human rights through an unswerving commitment to the convention? The Court has been made to work better over the course of the past four years, not least by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) in Brighton in 2012. The Court is learning its lessons; let us work with it and not undermine it, and human rights, in the process.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that these are not simple matters and that there is huge complexity here, and it would be quite wrong to attempt to reduce this debate to simplistic statements. However, it is also right that our commitment to human rights is not limited to our signature on pieces of paper but is explained and demonstrated in the actions that we take.
I have set out some of the actions that this Government have taken as well as those that the previous Government took, in conjunction with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and others. I have mentioned some of the things that we have achieved, and there have been others. We were the Government, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who reduced the maximum period that someone can spend in detention without charge to 28 days. We were the Government, too, who abolished ID cards. These are pro-human-rights measures. We demonstrate our commitment to the protection of human rights by what we do.
I am very grateful to the Attorney General for what he has said so far, but his response, and the absence of the Home Secretary, simply will not do. There is confusion here. Less than an hour ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), assured me that the Government have no plans to withdraw from the ECHR, but yesterday in her speech the Home Secretary said that withdrawing from the ECHR was a must. Why is she not here to answer this urgent question? Does she not realise that what she said yesterday has caused grave concern across these islands, particularly in Scotland?
I assure hon. Members on both sides of the House that the unity and purpose missing from the Conservative and Labour parties is present in the Scottish National party in relation to the ECHR and human rights, and also present in the majority of the elected Members of the Scottish Parliament, who made it very clear that under no circumstances would they ever consent to a repeal of the Human Rights Act.
As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, the ECHR is hard-wired into the Scotland Act. Everything that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament do is governed by the ECHR. I assure the British Government that given the composition of the current Scottish Parliament and the likely composition of the next one, there is no question of the Scottish Parliament ever giving its consent to Britain’s withdrawing from the ECHR. Does the Home Secretary not realise that if Britain were to attempt to withdraw from the EHCR, it would cause a constitutional crisis within these islands?
On EU law, it is correct that all EU member states and candidate states are required to be signatories to the convention. If the Attorney General is in any doubt about that, he could consult a number of legal academics, including Professor Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, the professor of European and human rights law at Oxford University, who has written extensively on this issue. I was going to suggest that the Attorney General needed to give the Home Secretary a tutorial on European Union law, but if he does not accept that signatories to the EU must also be signatories to the convention, perhaps he himself needs such a tutorial. [Interruption.] Yes, there is a question. When will this much-promised consultation come forward? Prevarication will not do any longer. When will the Government bring it forward, and will it include withdrawal from the ECHR as well as the HRA?
There is a risk in this discussion that we make a little too much of what happened yesterday. Let us be clear. I have said a number of times, and the hon. and learned Lady has heard different members of the Government make it clear a number of times, what our policy is in relation to human rights reform. I say again that the Prime Minister has been clear and we have all been clear—we rule nothing out. It follows from that that we do not rule out withdrawal from the convention should we not be able to achieve the changes that we all believe are necessary.
I accept that the hon. and learned Lady’s party and the official Opposition do not take the view that the status quo is unacceptable; we disagree about that. What I find odd about her position and, indeed, that of the official Opposition is that, as far as I can tell, they are saying to us: “Whatever you do on human rights reform we will oppose it. There is nothing you can do that we will ever support. There is no reform you can bring forward that we would ever regard as valid, but would you please get on and bring forward your reforms, which we will oppose anyway whatever you say?” That is not a sensible position for her and her colleagues to take.
The hon. and learned Lady is right, of course, that whatever proposals we make, there will be significant devolution consequences. As she has heard me say, and ministerial colleagues say, when we bring forward proposals we will ensure that full consultation happens with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we work through those issues.
Those of us who represent this House in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are acutely aware of the fact that the convention on human rights has been extended way beyond the original remit that was drawn up, in part by the United Kingdom, in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to seek to pursue changes. Will he do so as swiftly as possible to get the thing back under control?
The difficulty, as I have said, is not with the convention but with its interpretation, which has been extended well beyond what the original drafters intended. Perhaps the most evident example of that is in so-called extra-territorial jurisdiction. It was not intended that those conducting themselves and making decisions on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan should be subject to European human rights law; we have international humanitarian law that does a good job in that field, and it was not intended that that should happen. My hon. Friend is therefore entirely right.
The more the Attorney General and the Justice Secretary say that they have not ruled out the UK leaving the European convention on human rights, the more it sounds to me like exactly the direction of travel they intend to take, and I find that chilling. The Attorney General cited the proud tradition of this country in establishing this international system of guaranteeing human rights here and abroad, yet it is that very proud tradition that he appears to be about to kick into the gutter. Does he recognise that we cannot both be a signatory to the European convention and reject the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights? It is not just about having these substantive rights and paying lip service to them; it is about accepting the jurisdiction of the international court to enforce those rights. Does he recognise that every Government in this country needs to have that restraint? All Governments are tempted to abuse their power, and this international system is an important guarantee. Does he recognise, as Conservative Members have said, how important it is for those who are struggling for human rights in other countries to be part of a system that we play a part in guaranteeing? I hope that enough Members in this House and the other place will share that view, so that, if the Government drift towards a position of trying to leave the European convention, this Parliament will stop them.
I will start at the end of what the right hon. and learned Lady has said. She is quite right to say that the example that we set to other countries is something that should occupy our minds. Again, I make the point that the example we set comes from our actions—from what we do—and I do not think that there is any prospect of this Government or any other likely British Government moving away from a clear wish to protect human rights in this country and abroad. I have set out some of the ways in which the Government have done that.
I think that the right hon. and learned Lady attaches too much significance to the convention and the Human Rights Act. I understand why those who were in office in the Labour Government that introduced that Act feel very attached to it. She must also recognise that that Act and what it attempted to do—no doubt from the best of motives—have been tarnished by a number of cases that followed, which have led many of our constituents to believe that “human rights” is a term to be deprecated, not a term to be supported and celebrated. I am sure that she and I agree that we need to get back to a place where all our citizens are keen to support human rights and their protection.
My final point is this. In terms of restraint and what we are prevented from doing, as the right hon. and learned Lady would put it, by our membership of the convention on human rights, I am surprised that a former Law Officer overlooks the role of our own courts, which are robust in the way in which they hold Government to account and restrict the freedom of manoeuvre of Ministers—quite rightly so. I do not believe that we need to rely solely on the exercises of foreign jurisdictions to restrict our Government appropriately.
The Attorney General has been properly measured and thoughtful in his comments. There is a lot of fuss about what is really obiter dicta at the moment. Does he accept that the commitment of the Government and our domestic courts to human rights is demonstrated by the fact that only 0.4% of live cases before the ECHR involve the United Kingdom as a state party? Does he also accept that, as is recognised by many Strasbourg jurists, it would be perfectly possible to take word for word the protections in the convention and incorporate them into a British Bill of Rights, while staying entirely compliant with the convention, as most of us would wish to be?
There are, as my hon. Friend wisely suggests, many ways in which reform might be achieved. I will not, of course, pre-empt the proposals that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will introduce. My hon. Friend is right that there are many cases that the United Kingdom fights and wins, and it is worth recognising that. He will recognise, however, that one of our difficulties is the fact that, even when we fight and win, we spend a good deal of time and effort doing so. If cases are brought because people are encouraged to do so by an expansionist view of human rights law in Europe and elsewhere, we have to spend a good deal of time and effort dealing with those cases when perhaps that is not appropriate.
The convention on human rights was drawn up by British lawyers and has been hugely powerful in spreading standards of human rights and our common humanity not only across Europe, but much more widely. The Home Secretary did not say yesterday, “We should try to reform the Court and then have a think about it.” She said that we must pull out of the convention. Is that the Government’s policy—yes or no?
I think I have been very clear about what the Government’s policy is. The Home Secretary yesterday explained why the status quo is unacceptable. There is a difference between the convention that was drawn up in the 1950s and the interpretation given to it by judges in Strasbourg since that time. It is with the latter that we have an issue, not with the former.
One of the great advantages of the Attorney General’s coming to speak on behalf of the Home Secretary is that he is not enmeshed in the near-Trappist reticence that normally applies to a Law Officer. Given the freedom that the Home Secretary has kindly given him, will he invite her, next time he has a candid conversation with her, to explain something to the Turkish journalists, media organisations, police and judges, all of whom have been the subject of some pretty revolting treatment by the Turkish Government, and who look to the convention and to the Court for protection that they cannot get in their domestic courts and jurisdiction? Will he ask the Home Secretary to look those people in the face and say that our leaving the convention would not affect their rights or undermine their proper reliance on the standards of civilised behaviour, with which I thought we agreed?
There is very little doubt that I have fundamentally abrogated my Trappist vows this morning. My right hon. and learned Friend makes the crucial point that there are real human rights abuses in the world today, and this country should stand four-square against those abuses. We should do so regardless of what international convention we may be part of and regardless of what Act we have passed. We should make that position clear, as I have no doubt responsible Governments in this country will do, now and in the future. It is important that the Foreign Office and, indeed, all parts of Government do their part to enhance human rights here and abroad.
Post-1945 Europe should be proud to have such a convention, which has existed for so many years. If the argument is that from time to time, the judgments are faulty, what about judgments in this country, such as those in the cases of the Birmingham six and the Guildford four? Surely, they were hardly an argument for changing our judicial system. The reason the Attorney General is putting this forward, whether or not it represents his own personal and political views, is that there is an extreme element in the Conservative party that deeply resented having the convention in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that no court system is perfect. All systems are capable of making mistakes, and we should be grateful for the fact that our judicial system permits those mistakes to be corrected, as they were in the cases that he mentioned. I do not think that that is comparable to the exercise that has been conducted by Strasbourg jurisprudence on the European convention on human rights, which has moved that document fundamentally away from its founders’ intentions. That is a different thing. The Labour party is content to allow it to proceed, but we are not content to let it go.
A rule of thumb in life, I have found, is that when you throw a grenade, you usually retreat for cover. I wish that the Home Secretary were here to answer this urgent question, because I feel as though this has come up under the pressure of concerns about criminals, borders and so on. Conflating the two issues is fundamentally wrong. I would like to know whether the Home Secretary discussed her views before she made them known, because bringing them up now has made it look as though our Government are in disarray over the matter, and that is not acceptable. The Home Secretary should make it very clear whether she supports being in the ECHR. I respect my right hon. Friend’s views on the matter, but we cannot get away from the fact that she made a very clear statement yesterday, which was not helpful in the debate that many of us are having about control of our borders and criminals coming and going.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. If she reads the speech that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made yesterday, however, she will see that there was no conflation of the European convention on human rights and our membership of the European Union; indeed, my right hon. Friend made it very clear that they are two different things, to be approached in different ways. I do not think that there is a conflation, and we must all be cautious about making sure that we understand clearly what our colleagues are saying before we comment on it.
Following on from the comments that the Attorney General has just made, does he accept that there is a distinct parallel? Six months ago, many Members in this Chamber accepted the sincerity of the Government’s statement that they ruled nothing out but would seek substantial and meaningful reform of the European Union. If the point made yesterday was that the European convention on human rights is binding on this country and that that is a problem, why should Members accept today the veracity of statements about reforming or leaving? Does not the speech made yesterday prove the fundamental principle that, when someone tries to please everyone, in the end, they please no one?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have not succeeded in pleasing everyone. I grant him that, but there is no doubt, so far as the European Union question is concerned, that the Government’s position is very clear. It is that we have secured substantial and meaningful reform, and on that basis the Government can recommend to the British public that we should remain within the European Union. We are all entitled to our own views about whether that judgment is right or wrong, but that is the Government’s judgment. We have not yet made the same judgment about the European convention on human rights, because we have not yet brought forward our proposals or, indeed, negotiated a different settlement. That issue is yet to be determined, which is why it is in a different category from the European Union question.
I support my right hon. and learned Friend in making the case for sensible reform of our domestic human rights architecture. Is it not the case that whether such human rights are upheld in a supranational court or by our own courts and Parliament, there is no doubt that there will always be respect for fundamental human rights in this country, many of which have been guarded and promoted by Parliament itself? By contrast, is it not the case that the most egregious human rights abuses are found abroad, as evidenced, for instance, by the brutal murder of the editor of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender magazine in Bangladesh yesterday? Should the UK not use the full force of its influence to stand against such abuses?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. He makes the case very well for what we will do, which is to bring forward sensible reforms to our human rights framework but maintain our robust protection of human rights both in this country and around the world.
Will the Attorney General confirm that, if the Home Secretary’s wish came true, the UK would no longer have a British judge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and we would therefore not be party to making judgments to uphold international law across the whole of Europe?
Again, I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that there is more to promoting human rights here and abroad than our membership of that court or even of the convention. We do a great deal more to help to promote human rights, and we should continue to do so.
May I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for showing himself also to be gallant in defending the Home Secretary’s position? There seem to be a couple of errors in her speech. One was that she said it was the European Court of Human Rights that stopped us deporting foreign people, when it was in fact the ECJ that stopped Abu Hamza’s daughter-in-law being removed, contrary to the Home Secretary’s view.
On the issue of whether we have to be in the European convention on human rights while in the EU, I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to article 6.3 of the treaty on European Union:
“Fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention …shall constitute general principles of the Union’s law.”
Furthermore, the Commission, when asked specifically what would happen if a member state left the convention, said it would consider using article 7, which allows for the suspension of a member’s voting rights. It seems to me that, for once, European treaties are written in clear language that is understandable even to non-lawyers.
On my hon. Friend’s last point, if only that were true. I do not think there is the simplicity that he suggests there is on that point. He is of course right that ECHR principles contribute to European Union via the charter, but that is not the same as putting together the European convention on human rights and European law and saying that they are indistinguishable and indivisible from each other. That is not the position.
In relation to deportation, the difficulty we often face, as my hon. Friend will know, is the interpretation of article 8 of the convention, which deals with the right to a family life. That is a good example of the way in which rights drawn up perfectly sensibly in the convention can be extended beyond where they were meant to go, or of how the balancing exercise at the heart of all human rights law is not conducted in what he and I would consider to be a sensible way.
In his reply to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the Attorney General conceded that there would be substantial proposals in respect of devolution, but that there would also be “full consultation”. Does he accept that it is not a matter of full consultation, but of fundamental change to the way that the Welsh Assembly and the other Assemblies actually operate, so how will they operate?
As I have said, we will have to wait for the proposals to be brought forward before it is sensible to discuss them in detail, but the hon. Gentleman has my undertaking, as he has had that of other Ministers, that when the proposals are brought forward, there will be a full conversation about how the devolution aspects of such proposals will be managed.
I have given evidence at four trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The ICTY judges told me that the UK had a superb record on upholding human rights. I must say that was very pleasant for my men and me to hear, having had to go through four trials. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that such a verdict could be applied to all other members of the European convention on human rights?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that being a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the convention is no guarantee that a country’s human rights record will be spotless. It follows logically, of course, that not being such a signatory does not mean a country cannot have a hugely impressive record on the protection of human rights. Many countries around the world that are not signatories to that document have demonstrated exactly that.
Since the urgent question was asked, the Attorney General has made several references to the UK Government’s commitment to human rights being demonstrated by actions rather than by words. How can that commitment be squared with the UK Government voting yesterday against the human rights of child refugees requiring shelter in this country?
Mr Speaker, I am sure you will not want me to rehash the arguments made in the Chamber yesterday. I think that the hon. Lady should at least accept that this Government’s record in providing huge amounts of aid to those in need—not just in Syria, but around the world—demonstrates that we do care and that we do act in defence of the most vulnerable. Human rights is only one aspect; there are other very real needs that we help to support. The fact that this Government, against considerable opposition across many areas of opinion, have maintained our commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid shows that as clearly as anything does.
Surely the test is how our human rights work. The fact that this Government passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which is leading the way in Europe—I must say that it was largely due to the intervention of the Prime Minister—shows that we have an excellent human rights record.
I am grateful to the Attorney General for being at the Dispatch Box because there is one thing I would like to know in legal terms. From what has been said, this is a confusing issue. Can a country remain in the European Union and still come out of the convention? What is his legal opinion on that?
As I have suggested, the legal position is not clear. Neither my hon. Friend nor I have the time to go into all the ins and outs of that particular question now, but I suggest it would also be wrong to say that it is clear in the opposite direction. It is not at all clear that if the UK left the European convention on human rights, it would not be able to remain a member of the European Union. It is certainly not clear, and it would be wrong to suggest that it was.
As my hon. Friend has mentioned the Modern Slavery Act, may I take this opportunity to pay tribute to his own part in the process? I think the whole House recognises that my hon. Friend played a leading role in making the arguments on a subject that was not well known and not especially prominent. He brought it to prominence and secured a remarkable piece of legislation.
May I make it absolutely clear from the very beginning that I hold the Home Secretary in the highest regard? However, I was horrified—absolutely horrified—by her suggestion yesterday that the United Kingdom would leave the European convention on human rights. I am horrified by that suggestion. After 30-plus years of appalling violence in Northern Ireland, the Belfast agreement signed on Good Friday was hard won after hard negotiations, and the European convention on human rights was an integral part of that agreement. It was voted on in two referendums, in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, by thousands and thousands of people. I want the Attorney General not to assure me that there will be consultation, but to tell me what consideration the Home Secretary gave to the implications for the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, and particularly the implications for the Belfast agreement, before she made her statement yesterday.
The Home Secretary is clearly aware of those complexities, as is my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. It is difficult for me to discuss the details of proposals that have not yet been brought forward. The best thing I can do is to assure the hon. Lady—I know she does not want me to do so—that there will be an opportunity to discuss the issues in more detail. That is the best I can say at this point.
The Government are in something of a pickle. As well as needing multiple Parliaments, this great European project also needs two human rights frameworks. The result is a state of confusion, as set out by the European Scrutiny Committee’s 43rd report of the 2013-14 Session, “The application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in the UK: a state of confusion”. How will the Government ensure that any Bill of Rights will be able to survive the European Court of Justice?
Again, my hon. Friend tempts me to talk about proposals that are not yet before us, and I cannot do that. He is right, of course, to reinforce the point that these matters are exceptionally complex. Anyone who suggests that they are simple is wrong. We will, of course, have the opportunity to discuss the issue in some detail when the proposals are brought forward, in contrast with the position when the Human Rights Act was introduced, when there was precious little opportunity for consultation.
There is clearly some confusion and discomfort among those on the Government Benches about human rights, but there should be no confusion about the issue in the minds of voters on 23 June. The European convention on human rights is a creature of the Council of Europe and something that I absolutely support. The European Union charter of fundamental rights is quite a different matter: it was created by the EU and has been shown to be not quite so fundamental when it comes to worker and trade union rights, because it has found in favour of employers on a number of occasions when it should have found in favour of trade unions and workers. Does the Attorney General accept that it is very important to make it clear that leaving the EU on 23 June would not mean leaving the ECHR, and that if we challenge anything it must be the EU charter of fundamental rights, particularly where trade unions are concerned? Does he also agree—he probably does not—that the way to guarantee trade union and worker rights in this country is to elect a Labour Government under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)?
I was nearly all the way there with the hon. Gentleman, but I could not quite go with him on the last part of his question. As he says, there is a distinction between the convention on human rights and membership of the European Union and all that flows from that. I hope I made that clear in my earlier remarks, but I am happy to restate it. He is wrong to say that there is confusion among the Government on human rights. I have made our position very clear: we are in favour of human rights here and abroad, and we will fight hard to defend them regardless of our future proposals for reform. The hon. Gentleman will know that protocol 30 of the treaty negotiated by the last Labour Government makes it clear that the charter of fundamental rights creates no new rights in this country.
I am grateful for the Attorney General’s statement on the Government’s support for human rights. Will he confirm that we will remain signatories of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights, regardless of the ECHR? Given that that document was drafted in the 1950s and contains derogations for national security and other matters, does he agree that it is right to update the Human Rights Act to reflect changes in subsidiarity, which, after all, is an EU principle?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the UN declaration is a separate document; it is not affected by any decisions we might make about the European convention. She is also right to mention how things may develop. Those who support the status quo cannot have it both ways: if they think that it is perfectly reasonable for the Court in Strasbourg to extend the scope of the convention in the way that it has, they should also recognise that we should keep up with the times in other ways, too.
The UK’s withdrawal from the ECHR would present the most unwelcome of incentives to those who disagree with the international order surrounding human rights. What message does the Attorney General think that sends to the world’s despots and tyrants about respect for human rights?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he is wrong to suggest that despots and tyrants around the world do not fully understand the British Government’s view of the protection of human rights. That is something on which I do not think we could have been any clearer: not only have we spoken about it, but we have acted domestically and internationally to support and protect human rights.
In the European Court of Human Rights there are pseudo-judges, many of them political appointees rather than proper judges, over-reaching their remit under the convention with ridiculous decisions such as votes for prisoners. Why should this House vote for something we do not believe in, which our constituents do not believe in, and which makes the Prime Minister physically sick, just because some ludicrous judges in Strasbourg went way beyond their remit to comply? If we are not prepared to accept such rulings, which I am not, is not the only sensible course of action for a country that believes in the rule of law to leave?
As ever, I wish my hon. Friend would simply say what he really thinks. He is right to say that the status quo, which he has described, is unacceptable to quite a lot of the people we all represent in this country. The case for reform is unanswerable, and that is what this Government are going to do.
The Foreign Office has downgraded the global abolition of the death penalty in its human rights fund from being its top priority to being the bottom bullet point in a passing reference. Does the Attorney General agree that, taken together with the possible withdrawal from the convention on human rights, that will be seen as a green light to Saudi Arabia, China and other countries that administer the death penalty, and to Russia and Turkey, which abuse such rights? It is a way of dividing and ruling the European Union’s human rights record.
No, I do not think that that follows. The British Government, including Foreign Office Ministers whenever they travel abroad and speak to interlocutors from other countries, have made it clear that they oppose the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. We will continue to make that very clear.
I support our membership of the convention, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if we are to stay in the ECHR, and if we are to rehabilitate the reputation of human rights in the UK, it is important that the European Court curtails its reach and does not intrude into matters such as prisoner voting, which are properly matters for this House?
Originally proposed by Winston Churchill and drafted mainly by British lawyers, the European convention on human rights is an important part of our post-war history—it is, in essence, a British Bill of Rights. How are the public to trust the Government to ensure that the hard-won advances on equality, privacy and justice, and our wartime legacy, will not be at risk from their cruel agenda?
I will make two points in response to the hon. Lady. First, it is important to distinguish the Human Rights Act, and even the convention, from the promotion and protection of human rights. They are two different things and this Government’s record is very clear. Secondly, we have a very clear mandate for reform of the human rights framework. We set out what we intended to do in our manifesto at the general election. As it happens, parties that support reform of human rights law received more than 50% of the vote in that election, so the British people’s mandate for action is extremely clear.
I am sure that the Attorney General shares my surprise at some of the comments we are hearing about the idea of Britain having a system similar to that in many other countries, namely domestic rights legislation overseen by a Supreme Court. That is what Germany does with its own basic law. Given what we have heard about how well the ECHR protects human rights, and given that Russia is signatory to it, will the Attorney General outline how it has been protecting those of people living in eastern Ukraine?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. As I said earlier, it is no guarantee that a country will have a spotless human rights record if it is a signatory to the convention. We must be clear that we support the protection of human rights wherever in the world they may be abused, and the British Government will continue to take that position.
Had it not been for the Strasbourg Court, gay men and women in this country would not be serving in our armed forces, but because of the 1999 judgment there has been a rainbow revolution in our armed forces. Is that not just one of the many reasons why we should stick with the ECHR?
The hon. Gentleman draws attention to an undoubted positive change, and there have been others. But he is wrong to minimise the role of our own courts and, indeed, of democratically elected Governments of all political colours in making such changes. It is wrong to suggest that the only way in which we can achieve outcomes such as the one he described is to pursue the status quo on human rights law. That is not the right approach.
The Prime Minister said that he felt “physically sick” at the ECHR’s proposals to give prisoners voting rights. My constituents in Kettering are increasingly fed up with Europeans lecturing us on human rights when were it not for this country, our Dominions and our empire, who stood alone in 1940, there would be no human rights at all on the continent of Europe, let alone a convention. Many of us on the Conservative Back Benches do not recognise the conflict that many members of the Cabinet are struggling with between membership of the European Union and membership of the convention—we would be very happy to leave both.
I understand my hon. Friend’s position very clearly. He is right, of course, that that record of protection of, and respect for, human rights, and indeed of fighting on behalf of those whose human rights may be being infringed, is a proud and long-standing one. That will not change.
Article 3 of protocol 1 of the ECHR states:
“The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”
Given that the majority of legislators in this country are unelected—that is, the Members of the House of Lords—is the Attorney General satisfied that the UK Government actually comply with that protocol, or is that another reason why they want to withdraw?
The hon. Gentleman tempts me to give some legal advice in the Chamber, which I must not do. I am grateful to him, however, as what he has just read out is the part of the convention relied upon by the Strasbourg Court to suggest that prisoners should have the vote. I did not detect any reference to prisoners’ having the vote anywhere in the text that he just read. I maintain the view that that is for this Parliament to decide.
The Attorney General is quite correct that this country has a long and proud record of human rights. He is also correct in pointing out that our actions count more than mere signatures. Does he therefore agree that it follows that the international community looks to this country for our reform agenda, on issues such as abolishing slavery?
My hon. Friend make a very good point. Both what we have done in the past and what we are doing now send the kind of signal to other countries that Members have said today that they would wish us to send. We have a proud record of acting, not just in the past but now, to encourage others to do better.
I believe that the statement by the Secretary of State yesterday undermined the remain campaign. It revealed a further camp of thought—the “not so sure we should remain” camp. The Attorney General has stated to us today that this is a complex legal matter of clarity in the legislation about leaving the EU and remaining in the ECHR. How will he marry two very different points of view, and which is right?
As I say, it is a complex matter. On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I do not agree that the Home Secretary undermined the case for remaining within the European Union yesterday. On reading her speech, one sees that she made an extremely powerful case for remaining within the European Union and set out the argument with a great deal of clarity.
After all is said and done, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there are real issues with Strasbourg acting, in effect, as a final court of appeal, and that a UK Bill of Rights will seek to address that?
That is exactly the sort of issue that the Bill of Rights will seek to address, and I know that my hon. Friend will scrutinise it carefully when it comes forward.
As I am sure the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) will remember, in 1997 the then British Government placed before this House, with the eventual agreement of both sides, a proposal to place before the sovereign people of Scotland a proposition, in a referendum, to reconstitute the Scottish Parliament. At the core of the reconstitution of that Parliament is the European convention. Now that the Government—a Government rejected by Scotland fundamentally at the last general election—are seeking to undermine that very settlement, how does the Attorney General square that with the democratic will of the sovereign people of Scotland as expressed in the referendum in 1997?
The sovereign will of the Scottish people was expressed in the independence referendum in 2014. When they expressed their view, they concluded that they wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. Much as I know that the hon. Gentleman does not like it, that was the outcome and as result the United Kingdom Government will consider this matter for the future.