[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, I think for the first time. I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce today’s debate.
Over the last few years, particularly since we began our Brexit journey, we have discussed human rights in the United Kingdom and the potential consequences for them were this country to leave the European Union. A number of colleagues, most notably my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), have sought assurances from Ministers that human rights protection in the United Kingdom would not be in any way diminished as a result of that process. By and large, those assurances have been given.
Why, therefore, is it appropriate to discuss this matter again? There are three reasons. First, we have moved on in the Brexit process. We now have a draft political declaration that seeks to define the relationship this country would wish to have with the other 27 members after it leaves the European Union—if, indeed, it does. A number of us noticed a slight change of language in that declaration regarding human rights. No longer is there a clear-cut commitment to embody in domestic legislation the European convention on human rights; instead, there is talk of respect for the framework that the ECHR provides. The other 27 signatories to the political declaration are quite clear in their commitment to the ECHR. That suggests the possibility of some divergence between the United Kingdom and EU member states regarding implementation of the convention.
Secondly, the Government are led by someone who could hardly be described as absolute in her commitment to the current human rights legislative framework in this country. When the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, she sought to undermine the Human Rights Act 1998 by suggesting that it was in some way soft on terrorists. It is also worth noting that when she stood to be leader of the Conservative party, she ruled out repealing the HRA, not as a matter of principle, but because there was, in her words, no majority in Parliament for doing so. One wonders what her position might be were the majority in Parliament to change.
Thirdly, the Conservative party was elected on a manifesto that pledged that the HRA would not be repealed
“while the process of Brexit is underway”.
Who am I to guess whether the Brexit process is nearing the endgame or not? It certainly looks likely that, in 2019, it will get to the final stages, and we may or may not leave the European Union. The question therefore arises: what would the governing party’s policy be on repeal of the HRA once the Brexit process has been completed or at least got to the position of being implemented? For all those reasons, the central purpose of today’s debate is to seek an assurance from the Minister that there will be no attempt to repeal, undermine, weaken or amend the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998.
I often feel that our discussions on human rights can become somewhat abstract and go over the heads of the ordinary man or woman in the street. It is important that we state clearly why human rights are so central to everything we believe in. In essence, human rights are an expression of what we mean by civilisation. They define how individuals should act towards one another. They confer respect and dignity on the individual. Crucially, as well as setting standards for the behaviour that we expect from others, they set obligations on how we ought to behave towards others. I would argue that the existence of human rights is central to our wellbeing as a healthy and dynamic society.
It has been rightly suggested that few people ever think about their human rights; they certainly do not feel the need to go to court to have them upheld. I doubt if more than a tiny percentage of the population even know of someone who has gone to court on a human rights matter. That in itself suggests how powerful and useful the legislative framework is. The central point of human rights legislation is not to allow people to seek redress if their rights are infringed, but to protect people in the first place from others doing bad things to them. The fact that there is so little court activity in this field vindicates the view that the system is working.
Of course, there are cases where the system does not work and people feel the need to have their rights upheld. It is interesting to refer to a few of those, so that we, and the public, can understand how central these matters are. Celia Peachey did not think that the Human Rights Act related to her at all. Her mother was killed at the hands of a violent partner. She tried for years to get the police to do something about it, but could not persuade them to intervene. After her mother died, she was able to use the Human Rights Act to secure an inquest, which returned a verdict of unlawful killing and criticised the police for refusing to take action despite her representations.
The Driscolls were an elderly couple who depended on each other for care and support to go about their daily lives. When Mr Driscoll was rehoused in a residential care home, his wife was not allowed to live with him. They used the article in the Human Rights Act on the right to a family life to argue that they should be rehoused together, and they won and were rehoused as a couple. That was of benefit not only to them; they set a precedent, and in such cases it is now normal to consider rehousing elderly couples together.
Members will know of the case of Gary McKinnon, a young man with Asperger’s who allegedly hacked into a National Aeronautics and Space Administration computer database and who was wanted by the United States of America. They tried to have him extradited, which would have led to 60 years’ imprisonment had he been found guilty. He tried to resist that extradition. To her credit, the then Home Secretary said in 2012 that she would not allow his extradition, because, under the Human Rights Act, his rights would be breached were he extradited to stand trial in the US.
There is also the celebrated case of the black cab rapist, John Worboys. Two of his early victims, in 2003 and 2007, went to the police to complain about what had happened to them, and their complaints were not investigated at the time. After the case came to prominence, they used the Human Rights Act to get an inquiry into how the police had dealt with their complaints. It found that they had not done so correctly. The police were reprimanded, and the victims received compensation as a result of that use of the Human Rights Act.
Many people will know of the continuing campaign of the families of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster to seek justice for their loved ones. They have repeatedly used the Human Rights Act over the last 20 years to move their cases forward.
The final example I will give is that of people trying to get redress against public authorities—particularly health authorities, such as the Mid Staffordshire NHS hospital trust. I do not want to go into detail about the sad state of affairs in that institution; suffice it to say that 119 families have used the Human Rights Act to seek redress for the treatment they received from that hospital. Those are all important uses of the Act. Often, they quite literally make the difference between life and death, and are central to the quality of life of our citizens.
Let me turn to the implications of Brexit for the protections in the Human Rights Act. I have already discussed the wording of the political declaration with respect to the European convention on human rights, but in a sense I have to wonder why it is even an issue. The ECHR is the creature not of the European Union, but of the Council of Europe—an organisation to which this country subscribes and that involves 47 European countries, 40% of which are not members of the European Union—so one wonders why this is even being talked about in the context of Brexit.
It has been suggested that a commitment to the ECHR, if taken seriously, is in some ways a hindrance to the process of government and that it prevents the Government from acting freely. Some people on the extreme wings of the Brexit movement would suggest that it means foreign interference with the ability of an independent United Kingdom to do whatever it wants. Well, it is a good hindrance, because it obliges us to conform to international norms of civilisation to which most people throughout the world subscribe.
In terms of complaints under the ECHR and judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, the United Kingdom actually has a very good record: it is right down at the bottom of the list of countries having cases lodged against them. Our association with the Court and with the processes upholding the convention should not be seen as some sort of hindrance; it is a vindication of the fact that this country is actually quite good at upholding human rights when it comes to how things are governed.
There is a concern that one reason behind the debate on revisiting human rights legislation may be a desire to free up the United Kingdom for international trading arrangements post Brexit—the International Trade Secretary is not doing that well at signing us up to them, but I am sure more will come on the agenda in time. It is important that we say at the outset that we are not prepared to accept any trade-off in human rights standards from third-party countries as part of securing trade agreements. Surely we need to be seen as a country that not only upholds its own human rights standards, but uses its power and authority to ensure that such standards are upheld internationally. I therefore ask the Minister, first, to confirm that there is no intention to diminish current protections, and, secondly, to explore how in a post-Brexit scenario—if indeed that comes about—human rights will be protected not just in this country but around the world.
One problem is that we are talking about something that, to some extent, has already happened. Last summer, in debates on the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Government were keen to ensure that the EU charter of fundamental rights would not be included in British legislation, despite opposition from my party and many others. Their case was that including the charter would be unnecessary duplication, since all the individual rights in it were replicated elsewhere. That was not quite true—some rights in the charter are not in the ECHR—but, in any case, it missed the main point: the charter’s purpose was not just to define people’s rights, but to create obligations on EU member states regarding how those rights would be upheld and, in particular, to assert their primacy over other legislation.
Jason Coppel QC’s advice to the Equality and Human Rights Commission cites a 2017 case of cleaners in the Sudanese embassy who had tried to go to court to uphold their employment rights but had been told that, under the State Immunity Act 1978, foreign embassies were exempt from employment claims. They used the charter to go to court and to argue and win their case that their employment rights and human rights at work are more important that the 1978 Act, which should be set aside to ensure their rights. The tragedy is that if we exit the European Union at 11 pm on 29 March, the charter will be gone, so those cleaners would not be able to bring such a case. That is a diminution of people’s rights.
It is important not to be complacent about this, so we need to look at ways of strengthening and developing the application of human rights in our country. To that end, I want to say something about the situation in Scotland, because developments there can provide some leadership to the United Kingdom and the other nations in it. The Human Rights Act is a reserved matter, but the European convention on human rights, which the Act enshrines, is fundamental to the devolution settlement in Scotland and Wales and to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. Scottish Ministers are required to comply with the ECHR in everything they do. For that reason—and for the simple reason that upholding most people’s human rights has an awful lot to do with the day-to-day processes of government—the Scottish Government are keen to look at how human rights can be developed and incorporated into Scots law.
Just before Christmas, the First Minister’s advisory group on human rights leadership, chaired by Professor Alan Miller, published a very good report, which I commend to colleagues. It sets an agenda for taking things forward over the next five years and sets out three central principles in the context of Brexit. The first, which I have already mentioned, is that there should be no regression in human rights protections as a result of Brexit. The second, which we do not often talk about, is that we need to keep pace with any improvements in human rights protections in the European Union. That is a matter of having policies to ensure that this country does not lag behind the EU27, or indeed the Council of Europe 46. The third is how to make it real—how to integrate human rights protections into the very processes of government.
The report splits human rights into categories, of which the most familiar is civil and political rights such as the right to life, the right to vote or the right to free expression. Those rights are central to the ECHR and the Human Rights Act, but there is a whole other dimension of human rights that is essential to defining the nature of our society: social and economic rights, such as the right to health, the right to shelter or the right to work. The report is instructive in how it takes forward the debate; rather than describing those rights as abstract principles or objectives to attain, it examines how to shape Government policy towards their delivery.
I am happy to debate the point, because colleagues from the libertarian right may be able to put an alternative point of view, but, to my mind, delivering social and economic rights has to address the question of regulating resources in society. Essentially, such rights are about a fair allocation and sharing of resources between people. That does not mean that it is the Government’s responsibility to provide everybody with the keys to a three-bedroom house, but it does mean that the Government ought to be responsible for ensuring that there is a housing public policy framework with the objective that everyone should be adequately housed. In cases where regulation or the market fail to achieve that objective, the Government should also be responsible for ensuring safety-net provision of basic shelter. To test whether Government policy is delivering those rights, we need to ensure that the notion of human rights is integrated into Government at all levels.
There is much that can be learned from the debate in Scotland, so perhaps the Minister could comment on it, and on whether such a debate could happen in the United Kingdom as a whole. Human rights cannot be seen as an add-on or afterthought to Government policy; they need to be central to it at all levels. In future debates on the subject, rather than having a reply from a Justice Minister, perhaps it would be more fitting to have one from a Cabinet Office Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister or even the Prime Minister, because human rights need to be driven into every aspect of Government policy. They should not be seen as the concern only of lawyers or legal departments; they should be central to how we do the business of Government.
Order. I am conscious that several Members wish to speak. I intend to move to the Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.28 pm, so I advise Members that they will have to be relatively concise if everyone is to speak. I call John Howell.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who is a fellow member of the Council of Europe. I understand and agree with a lot of what he said.
The European convention on human rights has been around since the early 1950s, and it is worth remembering that it was 1965 when we agreed to abide by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in the UK. We have had almost 60 years of a relationship with the European Court of Human Rights and its decisions.
I start by making the point that the convention is not the same as the Human Rights Act, and the European Union is not the same as the Council of Europe. The two are very different and we should take them as such. I have a lot of time for the convention, and I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said about it. I was particularly irritated during the referendum campaign that a lot of people got the ECHR confused with the European Court of Justice. The two are completely separate. One is owned by the European Union and the other by the Council of Europe.
I would go on to say that the single biggest contribution to peace in Europe since the end of the second world war has come from the European convention on human rights, together with the work that NATO has done. We should state that, and we should be proud of it, because we have been very much involved in it from the beginning. As the hon. Gentleman and I know only too well, the European Court of Human Rights comes with a democratic mandate. I imagine the hon. Gentleman spends a lot of time, as I do, voting for the judges who are nominated to sit on the European Court of Human Rights. That gives democratic control and is also a means of reflecting, to some extent, the mixture of politics, competence and a whole number of other matters that give the European Court of Human Rights its character.
I am not as enamoured of the EU’s involvement with human rights, which I think has created a very mixed picture. If I am not using the term wrongly, I think that the European Union has tried to steal the mandate of the Council of Europe, which applies to almost twice the number of countries as the EU does—that is where a large part of its strength lies. The relationship between the EU and the European Court of Human Rights is something that we are still debating at the Council of Europe.
UK involvement with the European Court of Human Rights has been a huge success story. It has been a very good illustration of how human rights overall are doing quite well in this country. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on the need to extend those human rights to matters such as housing. That is a route to socialist involvement in the running of this country that I do not agree with, and would steer clear of.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there are countries across the world, such as South Africa with its new constitution and some Nordic countries, that have a right to adequate housing in their constitutions? Does he consider those to be socialist countries?
When the EU decided to bring out its own human rights framework, it thought very carefully about what should be included, and it differs from the European Court of Human Rights on only a few exceptions.
The European convention on human rights was opened for signature in November 1950 in Rome, and the Government in this country was a Labour Government from 1945 to 1951. Will the hon. Gentleman praise the socialist Government under which the ECHR was originally conceived?
The hon. Gentleman plays politics with human rights, which is unworthy of him and of this Chamber.
To return to the issue I was discussing—the success of the British Government with the European Court of Human Rights—about 90% of applications that come before the European Court of Human Rights are deemed unacceptable and are not taken forward. Of those that are taken forward, since 1975, the Court has found no violation in a quarter. Our track record is particularly successful.
I want to bring up two cases that illustrate the extremes. The first is that of the Gurkhas. Members may remember that a few years ago we moved their headquarters back to the UK and their pensions on to the same basis as UK soldiers. They took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, which decided that there had been no real discrimination against them, and found for the British Government.
In a slightly different case on the UK’s mass surveillance regime, which it uses as part of security operations, the Court found that the UK had violated the convention and it asked for some changes. That brings us on to the very tricky issue of the role of human rights versus legislation regarding dealing with terrorism. I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East that this should be looked at in the context of what makes a better world to live in—I am not one of those who believes that tearing up the European convention on human rights is the best way to protect us against terrorism—but, having said that, and as the hon. Gentleman will know, at the last Council of Europe meeting, when the issue came up of whether we deprive those who have gone to fight with ISIS of their passports, I enthusiastically supported that motion. We should not have them back. The role of human rights in this plays out at different levels and in different ways.
In terms of how the ECHR works, people should understand that they have to exhaust all domestic remedies first, before they have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights. They cannot go straight to the European Court of Human Rights. There has to be an alleged violation of the convention, and significant disadvantage from that.
The response I would like to hear from the Minister is along the lines of what has already been said—indeed, it was this Minister who said:
“The UK will remain a party to the ECHR after it has left the European Union. The decision to leave the European Union does not change our strong commitment to recognising and respecting human rights.”
I am not sure whether he remembers making that statement, but it was in response to a question from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).
I agree with the Minister wholeheartedly: human rights are too important to be used as a political football in this game of Brexit or, indeed, in anything else. We have a long and successful track record of using our involvement with the European Court of Human Rights and our long relationship with the Council of Europe, which oversees the Court, and of protecting the interests of British citizens.
I am grateful that we have you in the Chair, Mr Gapes, and it is a pleasure to serve under you. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing the debate. I certainly have concerns about the loss of the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union, including article 25, on the rights of older people. I have been campaigning for a commission for the rights of older people; they are very much voiceless in our institutions, and we need serious reparation.
Today, I will take a different perspective. People will be glad to know that I am going to talk not about Brexit but about my city of York, which became the UK’s first human rights city on 24 April 2017. Currently, there are 41 human rights cities across the world, including nine in Europe, which are networked together. That is something we are incredibly proud of, and it builds on a strong legacy. In setting out what a human rights city is, I hope hon. Members will be encouraged to take that message back to their own cities to develop a case like the one Swansea is currently developing.
York is a human rights city built on a legacy. We became a city of sanctuary in 2016. York Travellers Trust has done incredible work representing Travellers and Gypsies in our city. The York LGBT Forum has welcomed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender asylum seekers and refugees, bringing them together in a safe space. The University of York has a global reputation, and its Centre for Applied Human Rights is famous for its protective fellowship scheme, which brings human rights defenders from across the world to the university not only to have some thinking space to make sure their human rights activity is sustainable globally, but to have some intellectual rigour in looking at best practice in terms of human rights defenders across the globe.
I ask the Minister to ensure that we do not face real challenges in getting visas for these individuals when they come to the UK, so that they can have that space. We are humbled to hear of the work they are doing, whether they are journalists, human rights defenders or people working in court systems. They come to the UK not only to have some respite, but to advance their human rights practice, yet visas are blocked time and again because these people do not have the resources, although they have people here who are willing to sponsor them. It seems a shame that doors are shut when we should be extolling the incredible work these people do.
As a human rights city, York has signed up to a charter to work on the domestic human rights agenda. I disagree with the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) on the importance of these issues, because human rights must also apply at home in the UK. The five areas that York has chosen—they are not circumscribed—are equality and non-discrimination, education, decent standards of living, housing, and health and social care. In becoming a human rights city, York embraces a vision of a vibrant, diverse, fair and safe community built on the foundation of universal human rights. It is a vision that is shared by all citizens and institutions in our city, including the council, the police, the voluntary sector and the faith communities. It puts fundamental rights at the heart of policies that are passed by these authorities, and builds on hopes and dreams.
People who know the history of York will know that this follows a strong legacy. On housing, human rights is such an important issue to our city, where the Rowntree family built our country’s first garden village in New Earswick. That stimulated the Housing Act 1919, which was the foundation of social housing in our country, and the model was then taken forward into Tang Hall, further into the city.
As a city, we have had pioneering mental health services—first at Bootham Park Hospital, which was established in 1777. When a patient tragically died there, the Quaker movement said, “We can do better” and set up a retreat. To this day, there has been competition to advance the human rights of people with mental health challenges in our city.
We then had Seebohm Rowntree, and many people will know that he wrote three incredibly powerful reports on the issue of poverty—the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has followed that through until today. Even in the 1899 report “Poverty, A Study of Town Life”, the authors talked to over 46,500 residents of York to look at the serious poverty in our city. What an incredible study that was, taking the stories as well as the statistics to try to advance our city.
Then we had Joseph Rowntree himself—yes, he of chocolate fame—who outlined what good-practice work should look like in our city. He provided not only jobs with decent pay, but pensions, healthcare, education, housing, a park, theatres, access to the arts, a swimming pool and decent conditions. He and his family understood the real importance of that holistic agenda for advancing individual rights, and he sewed that legacy into our city. That is why we are proud to be the UK’s first human rights city.
However, we are on a journey, and it is fair to say that there is a lot that we need to achieve. As we map our way forward, we are looking at statistics and stories to tackle challenges where, quite frankly, our city needs to improve. Over the last year, we have seen wages fall in York by £65, causing greater economic inequality when we are already the most inequitable city outside London. By using the human rights framework to look at economic disadvantage, we will be advancing opportunities for people in our city. We have a gender pay gap of £117, which has to be addressed—it is above the national average. We have also looked at the issue of food bank use, which is up 25% in the last year—over 4,000 residents needed to use a food bank. How can that be ignored when we look at a human rights framework? These are fundamental issues facing our society today.
There is an eight-year gap in life expectancy in York. In the wards of Clifton, Westfield and Tang Hall, men die eight years earlier than their counterparts elsewhere—they are disadvantaged both economically and in terms of health.
On education, using the human rights framework we have established, we have already seen the number of NEETs—people who are not in education, employment or training—fall. That is a really positive outcome, which is due to our tracking through the causation and then introducing the restorative means to get more people into work. However, York has received the worst school funding in the country from the Government. In areas where we have the lowest attainment—we have the biggest attainment gap in the country—we are not building a legacy for the future. I urge the Government to look at the data and make the link between funding and attainment, which our human rights framework clearly does.
Cuts to social care have had a real impact. To go back to the fundamental rights I mentioned, we know that contact with social care services has fallen in our city. On the important issue of housing, although we are a low-wage economy, we have people with high skills and therefore under-employment. That makes it harder to access housing, because we have a very high cost of living. Purchasing a property in York requires 10 times the average annual income, and it is incredibly expensive to rent. We have poor access to housing, and greater inequality is therefore being created between the haves and have-nots in our city. We therefore use the human rights framework to advance opportunity and map a way forward for people in our city.
Since 2017, we have established a human rights and equalities board and developed community voices, ensuring that those who never engage in our democracy, and whose voices are silent, are at last being heard. We reach out particularly to the homeless, disabled people, women and young people. We also support others who hope to develop the framework to advance rights in their own city. York has been built on its history and social traditions, and we want its legacy to move forward. The Labour party in the city has a vision of building a fair city for the future and re-enacting and repeating the work that Seebohm Rowntree did.
Order. Three people wish to speak. If Members can keep their remarks to about five minutes, including interventions, that might allow Front-Bench speakers time. I intend to call the first Front-Bench speaker at 3.28 pm.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Gapes. I am a little perturbed that my time has been cut, but that is by the way. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for securing this debate. Although we champion human rights in this country, there are certainly cases that show we are not where we should be. Next year is the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s journey. In September 1620, a group of 102 people and 30 crew members sailed across the Atlantic to seek opportunity and to escape religious persecution in the UK. Some 400 years later, we still have some problems.
There are also cases that show us that one person’s human rights should not be laid on the altar of someone else’s perceived rights. An example was the case of Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland, when the question was raised as to whether we still have the right to refuse to serve based on a message that directly contradicts a sincerely and dearly held faith. After much legal wrangling, the case upheld the right to refuse a message, but not a customer. The idea that you cannot be forced to advocate something that you do not believe in is fundamental, and the decision was very important. The case was taken to the UK Supreme Court and in a unanimous decision five of the UK’s most senior judges upheld Ashers’ appeal against claims of discrimination. They agreed:
“The objection was to being required to promote the message on the cake. The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message not to the man...Nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe.”
That is what the court said, and it is very important to have that decision when it comes to human rights in the United Kingdom.
Although the case was ostensibly about a message on a cake, a section of Christian people were fearful that it was also about an impact on their right to hold their belief and to live their belief out. We are so good at protecting the rights of everyone to live their beliefs inasmuch as they are not harmful or destructive, and yet increasingly we have a section of the UK beginning to fear what can be said or not said when it comes to their Christian beliefs.
A 78-year-old preacher in Northern Ireland was questioned and tried for preaching from his pulpit regarding a biblical story and hell and the fact that if someone does not have faith in Jesus Christ they cannot go to heaven. He was found not guilty. That is another example of human rights. We have registrars who have lost their jobs as they cannot oversee the marriage ceremony of same-sex couples, which is against their held beliefs. Other people are happy to do it, and yet registrars have lost their employment. It is little wonder that Christians question their human rights when all seem to say, “Believe anything you want, tolerate everything possible, except for something based on the word of God and personal and heartfelt beliefs.” The court cases have proven that that is not the case. We must question how such cases get to court. There is a real fear within Christian circles at this time.
I have heard more than one Christian preacher warn his congregation that a time is coming when all will be persecuted for their faith, and many people believe that will happen in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I want a message sent today, very clearly and specifically, that that will not happen in this country while we are still a democracy—that we will allow people to hold on to their belief and live by it as long as there is no harm to others around them. This nation was founded on biblical principles from the time of Alfred the Great, and it is time that we reminded people that, whether we personally believe or not, Christians will not be persecuted for living their faith, in the same way as we do not allow the persecution of other religions. It goes without saying, and yet a growing section of our community need to hear it said in this debate today as we talk about human rights. We also must speak up for those who have been persecuted because of their religious and heartfelt views. It is very important that these matters are put on the record.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for leading this debate.
I want to say a few words about the European convention on human rights, which I very much support. It is important to emphasise that the values that we see in the European convention are British values. Let us look, for example, at some of the rights contained within it: the right to life, which sounds fairly British to me; the right to avoid torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, article 3—we could probably sign up to that; the right not to be subject to slavery, article 4; the right to liberty and security, article 5; and the right to a fair trial and so on. All too often this debate has been tainted by a misunderstanding of what the actual rights are, as though they are a foreign import that do not reflect some of the cultural norms in our country, but nothing could be further from the truth. That is emphasised by the fact that, certainly in my experience in court, and I dare say in the experience of plenty of the other distinguished practitioners in this room today, it is overwhelmingly the case that any submission that is supported by, for the sake of argument, article 6 is often buttressed by domestic legislation as well.
In the criminal courts, if someone seeks to exclude evidence that is relied upon by the prosecution on the grounds that it would deny their client the right to a fair trial, it might be that, in tandem with invoking article 6, they will rely on section 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Although the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was absolutely right to highlight individual cases where rights had been asserted in order to achieve a remedy, in the overwhelming majority of cases in our country the domestic legislation does perfectly well and may be supported to some extent. As I say, it is rare that the right itself would found the claim or application for a remedy.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right in his assessment of the criminal law. The one area where the Human Rights Act, in the sense of the incorporation of the ECHR into UK law, has made a big difference is in family law, particularly in rights to see children.
That is right, and there are areas where there has been a greater role for it. However, I want to slay the myth that people are routinely invoking Human Rights Act points to seek remedies that are not otherwise available in the legislation. There are examples of that, but they are by no means the norm. The convention is important because it provides an important safety net at a time particularly of national stress and crisis. We know that in the case of a terrorist atrocity, the cry immediately goes up that the state must act ever more robustly, often impinging upon individual liberties. Sometimes that is the right judgment to make, but equally it is critically important that any measures that the state proposes are viewed through the prism of what we see as keenly won liberties. It is not just a British phenomenon.
If one thinks of the United States in the second world war, one of the episodes of which it has now the most shame was the internment of Japanese Americans at a time of national stress. But our country is not immune to it. In the aftermath of September 11, there was legislation in the UK that people will remember: part 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which was used by the then Government to effectively hold people without charge. That ultimately was challenged in the European Court of Human Rights and the Court ruled that that was unlawful because it breached article 5. Again, it seems that that provides a useful safety net.
In my lifetime, members of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland were interned without trial, with quite some impact on family life. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is something that the ECHR has made a big difference to in the United Kingdom? As a result of our membership and its applicability through the Human Rights Act, it now would not be possible to intern without trial in the UK.
It is an important point and we must recognise that because—as is necessary in a democracy—we listen to our constituents and reflect their concerns, this House will always have a tendency to react in a very public way to what is perceived as a public need; but it is not wrong that there should be a check to that and a requirement for us sometimes to pause for thought.
In so far as we give great power to the courts—and to the European Court of Human Rights, through the convention—it is also right that they should exercise necessary discretion, and I respectfully suggest that there have been examples of their straying beyond their natural area of competence. The most obvious example is Hirst, when article 3, which of course prohibits torture and “inhuman or degrading treatment”, was relied on to rule that the British Government were in error in saying that prisoners could not vote. A number of people might think that that had gone too far, and that there had not been appropriate respect for the principles of subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation. I will not go into that now, but there is certainly a case for saying that the Court should tread carefully—and I invite it to do so. I say that because what the Court does, and the rulings that it provides, overwhelmingly contribute to human rights in this country and to the quality of our public discourse and democracy. It would be a crying shame if unfortunate judicial activism were to put that at risk.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for bringing this important issue to the House.
I am deeply concerned by the huge hole that will be left in human rights protection after Brexit, especially in the event of a no-deal Brexit. However, even while the UK remains a member of the European Union, human rights have been considerably worn down as a result of austerity policies.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, but only because there is not a lot of time.
Only last year, the UK, according to Professor Alston, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was found in breach of four UN human rights agreements: those relating to women, children, disabled people and economic and social rights. The critiquing report drew on work by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to highlight predictions that child poverty could rise by 7% by 2022, possibly up to a rate of 40%. Professor Alston declared that such actual and projected levels of child poverty were
“not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”.
Such reports agree with the experience of my constituents. Enfield Council has already made £178 million-worth of savings since 2010 because of funding cuts from central Government. However, further cuts mean that the council currently has to find another £18 million to draw out of essential services by 2020. That amount of £18 million is more than Enfield’s current net spend on housing services, leisure, culture, libraries, parks and open spaces combined. The impact of cuts on young people is tragic. Youth services have been decimated and young people are abandoned, as essential staff have had to be shed, and what is simply a skeleton service is provided. Austerity in education in Edmonton has created an £8.5 million annual funding shortfall. Every school in my constituency has had funding cuts since 2015. That means, in an already struggling community, that the education of every single pupil in Edmonton has been undermined.
All that and much more has been done while the UK still has the protection of the EU charter of fundamental rights. The Human Rights Act 1998 is woefully insufficient on its own, and I dread what could be done to our communities without the limited protection that the EU charter provides. Does the Minister recognise the limitations of the Human Rights Act without the protections of the EU charter of fundamental rights, and can he explain how his party’s Government are preserving those rights before the UK leaves the EU?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing the debate. We have had diverse contributions, from the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell), for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and for Edmonton (Kate Osamor). I was particularly interested in the concept of the human rights city, which I was not aware of. I shall look at that as something that Edinburgh might think about. I was also pleased that the hon. Member for Edmonton mentioned the report and findings of the UN rapporteur on poverty. We should bear that in mind carefully as we proceed to look at how we run our economy and society.
The debate is timely, because Parliament is convulsed in a state of indecision at the moment about whether to go for the Prime Minister’s deal, no deal or no Brexit. Everyone is talking about the backstop. It is important in that context not to lose sight of the clear risk posed by Brexit of regression in terms of human rights, across the United Kingdom. It is also important to remember the threat that it poses to human rights in Northern Ireland. At least one speaker today has pointed out how integral the recognition of human rights is to the Good Friday agreement. For anyone interested in that, I highly recommend the briefing paper “The Good Friday Agreement, Brexit, and Rights” by Professor Christopher McCrudden, who is the professor of human rights and equality law at Queen’s University Belfast. The paper was published by the British Academy and the Royal Irish Academy, and makes interesting reading.
I believe that human rights are in a precarious position in the UK at the moment, because despite a clear commitment from the Prime Minister that Brexit would not result in a diminution of rights protections, the UK Government have not to date lived up to that commitment either in the context of Brexit or more widely, as we can see from the UN rapporteur’s report and the huge concern caused by the Windrush scandal and other aspects of the hostile environment policy. Many of us feel that the Government have refused to engage with people’s concerns about the impact of Brexit on human rights. It is concerning that while the Human Rights Act is said to be safe for the duration of the Brexit process, recent events have made it clear that the current UK Government have not lost sight of a long-standing desire on the part of some in the Conservative and Unionist party to repeal and replace the Act.
In the meantime, we know for certain that if Brexit happens we shall lose the charter of fundamental rights. That charter protected a wide-ranging list of fundamental rights and principles, covering certain social and citizens’ rights, and going considerably further than the ECHR. The UK Government have tried to argue that the charter did not add anything to the corpus of UK law, but that is demonstrably false, even going by the UK Government’s own right-by-right analysis from 2017. That highlights how limited UK domestic protections are in certain key areas. That is not just my view; it was echoed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member.
The Scottish Parliament tried to preserve the benefit of the charter of fundamental rights on or after exit day, in so far as it applied to retained EU law in Scotland. It did that in a Scottish Parliament Bill called the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill. Most regrettably, British Law Officers objected to the Bill and held it up until the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was passed. That retrospectively changed the powers of the Scottish Parliament so that the continuity Bill, in so far as it attempted to preserve the charter in Scotland, was ultra vires. That was a retrograde step. To anyone who says that Brexit has not been used as a power grab on the Scottish Parliament I point out that the UK Supreme Court has clearly said otherwise.
The Brexit process threatens human rights protections across the UK, not just by repealing the charter but because of the wide range of delegated powers afforded to the Executive in the Brexit process. As the withdrawal Act stands, it would allow the amendment of important domestic rights legislation such as the Equality Act 2010, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the Data Protection Act 2018 with little or no parliamentary oversight. That is so because, despite the efforts of many of us to amend it, the Act contains no clear prohibition on the use of delegated powers to erode rights protections.
The repeal of the charter, the risks of delegated legislation, and Government obfuscation on these issues—that is also a result of Brexit—all threaten human rights in the United Kingdom. Hon. Members should not just take my word for that, because the Joint Committee on Human Rights criticised the Government over their report on human rights and the implications of Brexit, and stated back in 2016 that it was “regrettable” that the Government had not set out “any clear vision” for how they expected Brexit to impact on the UK’s human rights framework.
In the same report, the Committee found that the Government seemed “unacceptably reluctant” to discuss human rights after Brexit. The then Minister responsible for human rights, the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), was either
“unwilling or unable to tell us what the Government saw as the most significant human rights issues that would arise when the UK exits the EU.”
Such reluctance to commit is of particular concern when we consider future trade deals with third countries because many of us fear, as the JCHR hinted, that an unwillingness to discuss such issues in detail is suggestive of a Government who wish to prioritise trade deals over human rights. That is important not only because of the message that it sends out to the UK, but because of the message that is sent out across the world if the United Kingdom does not prioritise human rights.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East said, concern has recently raised its head again about the Government’s long-term intentions regarding the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is difficult to remember what we all talked about in those dim and distant days before Brexit, but in 2015 and 2016 the current Prime Minister’s avowed desire to get rid of the Human Rights Act was a huge issue, and the big question mark that she raised over whether Britain would continue to observe the ECHR involved us all in a lot of debate. It seems that that issue has merely been put on the back burner, which is concerning.
As my hon. Friend said, in Scotland under devolution two pillars guarantee human rights—membership of the European Union and membership of the ECHR. Scotland now faces being taken out of the European Union against the will of the majority of Scots, and there is a big question mark over the depth of this Government’s commitment to the ECHR. The majority of Scottish voters did not seek or support those threats to human rights, and it is good to know that the Scottish Government are showing the way forward. Scotland’s national action plan for human rights has existed for a number of years, and just before Christmas the advisory group on human rights leadership to the Scottish Government published a report that suggested a new human rights framework for Scotland in the future. That advisory group was asked by the Scottish Government not only to make recommendations about civil and political rights, but to consider social, cultural and environmental rights, as well as if and how to incorporate rights found in United Nations treaties into Scots law and governance.
As my hon. Friend said, in recommending the next steps on Scotland’s human rights journey, the report of the advisory group set out three guiding principles—first, that Scotland should not regress from the rights currently guaranteed by membership of the European Union; secondly, that Scotland should keep pace with future rights developments within the European Union; and thirdly, that Scotland should continue to demonstrate leadership in human rights.
Will the Minister consider each of those principles and say whether the UK Government will sign up to them for the whole of the UK? Will the Government agree that the whole UK should not regress from the rights currently guaranteed by membership of the European Union? Will they agree that the whole UK should keep pace with future rights developments in the European Union, and that the UK should continue to demonstrate leadership in human rights? That is the sort of clarity that the Joint Committee on Human Rights and others have been calling for. I would like to hear such clarity from the Minister today, and if the UK Government cannot sign up to those principles, will the Minister tell us why not?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, and I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed to what has been, on the whole, a very fine debate on human rights. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing it, and on his speech. He powerfully highlighted why this debate is so timely, given the worry that there will be a roll-back of rights, and that the EU27 will move ahead and enhance rights while we in this country fall behind. He also spoke well about the Prime Minister’s ambiguity on this matter, to say the least—I will return to that in a moment—and he picked out some strong examples of practical cases where the Human Rights Act and the incorporation of the ECHR into UK law has made a difference to those seeking justice in this country over the past two decades.
It was great to hear about the human rights city initiative in York, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and all those involved in that. We must spread information about the human rights and equalities board, and all the other work going on around the country. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), and the report of the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights should wake us up to the endemic problems of poverty in this country. She spoke about human rights agreements being breached, and that involves the economic and social rights of women, children, and disabled people. That is a stark reminder that although rights are critical, they are paper rights if people do not have the means to enforce them. It says everything we need to know about economic policy over the past nine years when an outgoing Lord Chief Justice can say that our justice system is “unaffordable to most”, and that should be a matter of great alarm.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) spoke about his experience on the Council of Europe, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke movingly about religious persecution, about which we should all be vigilant. I did not agree with all the arguments made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk)—he is no longer in his place—but I certainly agreed with his support for the European convention on human rights.
We must return to first principles when discussing the European convention on human rights, which grew after world war two out of the desire and noble objective to ensure that what had happened could not happen again. As I said to the hon. Member for Henley, the convention was part of many different initiatives by the post-war Government to put that “never again” spirit into practice. I am always even-handed when dealing with the history of this initiative, so let us consider who supervised the drafting of the original ECHR. One of the people who took part in that, David Maxwell Fyfe, was a Tory MP and lawyer, and I wonder what on earth he would make of some of the modern-day Conservative party’s ambiguity towards that initiative.
What does the ECHR actually protect? I think the hon. Member for Cheltenham touched on that. It protects respect for life and is against torture and servitude. It protects liberty and security, and the right to a fair trial and not to have legislation applied retroactively. It protects the right to privacy, freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom of expression and association. It protects the right to get married if one wishes to, and provides effective remedies and protection against discrimination. Who could disagree with any of that? My challenge to those who say that we should have a British Bill of Rights is to ask which of those rights they would take out and not include in that Bill. I remember asking Ministers that question when I first came to Parliament in 2015, but answer came there none.
As I said, I am a great champion of the convention, and although it was written immediately after the second world war, it contains nothing that does not apply to today.
I am happy to find some agreement with the hon. Gentleman because, yes, all those things still apply today. That is precisely my point—why would anyone want to change any of those time-honoured principles? Of course we can debate how some of them are applied and so on, but those principles are as important and relevant in 2019 as they were in late 1950 when the convention was opened for signature.
The Human Rights Act 1998 is also seminal—it is important to understand precisely what the situation was before its passage. The hon. Member for Henley said that our courts started following the judgments in 1965, but of course the problem was that between the early 1950s and October 2000, when the 1998 Act came into force, if one wished to enforce any of those rights, one had to go to Strasbourg in the first place. The big change that came about in 2000 was the ability to go to our local courts to enforce those rights, which meant that it was cheaper, easier and more efficient to enforce the rights that our citizens had held for so long. That was a seminal change.
I parted company with the hon. Member for Cheltenham because, although in one sense he is right to say that those rights buttressed existing UK common law rights, there are numerous examples—the hon. Member for Edinburgh East referred to some of them, and I also point out the example of family law to the hon. Member for Henley—where the incorporation of the 1998 Act into UK law has made a significant difference.
The Labour party is very committed and passionate about the ECHR and the UK’s signatory status, and about its incorporation into our domestic law. However, there is real concern about the governing party’s position, particularly that of the Prime Minister, on the ECHR. In 2011, the Prime Minister—when she was Home Secretary—said:
“I’d personally like to see the Human Rights Act go because I think we have had some problems with it.”
Her first view appeared to be that she wanted it gone.
In April 2016, she said:
“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 is the Conservative party’s position in its 2017 manifesto, which states:
“We will not repeal or replace the Human Rights Act while the process of Brexit is underway but we will consider our human rights legal framework when the process of leaving the EU concludes. We will remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament.”
In his response, the Minister has an opportunity to explain, because although we know what the position is for this Parliament, we do not know what it will be for the next Parliament. The hon. Member for Henley said, quite rightly, that these are time-honoured principles. Why, according to the Conservative party, are they only good enough for this Parliament? Why are they not good enough for the next Parliament, the next 10 Parliaments or the next 20 Parliaments?
I can say for certain that the Labour party will always be fundamentally committed to human rights, to the ECHR and to the Human Rights Act 1998. Can the Minister say the same for his party?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing this debate on human rights in the UK. I have listened with great interest to the views expressed. We have a multiplicity of not only hon. Members, but hon. and learned Members, who have offered the benefit of their legal expertise.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East set out not only his case, but the broader importance of human rights as a concept, highlighting a number of specific cases and examples. That is, quite rightly, a subject of real importance to all Members, and one in which I have taken a very close interest within my portfolio. It is not only intellectually fascinating but, as hon. Members have said, it permeates our national life.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of where responsibility for human rights should sit. I will not take personally his suggestion that it be moved. The reason that it currently sits with the Ministry of Justice and with me is that, although he is absolutely right to say that it is a cross-cutting issue, the Ministry of Justice is a key defender of the rule of law, and this issue goes to the heart of that. I am sure, however, that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Ministers in the Cabinet Office will have noted his points.
As many hon. Members have said, human rights in the UK are not new. The UK has a reputation for setting the highest standards, both domestically and internationally. As has been set out, that did not begin with the ECHR, the Human Rights Act 1998 or our membership of the EU—nor will it end with our exit from the EU. “Human rights” as a distinct term may have entered common usage in this country in the 20th century and developed through international treaties and organisations, but the concept of rights—and, I might add, responsibilities—in our country goes all the way back to Magna Carta in 1215, the Petition of Right in 1628, the Bill of Rights in 1689 in England and the Claim of Right in 1689 in Scotland. The concept has evolved over many centuries.
Common law developed alongside statutes and set out rules developed by the courts to govern relationships between people and Government, which we would recognise today as “rights”. We have a strong and proud track record on that. As the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) highlighted when talking about her city and its university, in many of our communities, the issue is rooted more locally. I was particularly interested in her comments about the work that the university and her city are doing in that respect.
Winston Churchill, no less, was one of the main advocates for a new regional organisation that was to become the Council of Europe. In 1942, he called for the “enthronement of human rights” and in 1948, he called for a charter of human rights that would be
“guarded by freedom and sustained by law.”
The European convention on human rights, as many hon. Members have mentioned, was drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe, to safeguard basic political and civil rights.
I am always educated, not only in matters of the law, but in matters of history, by the shadow Minister, although in this case, it is a coincidence that I read David Maxwell Fyfe’s memoirs over Christmas. I suspect I am one of only a very small number of people in the House, or indeed in the country, to have done so.
As has been said, the UK was one of the first to sign up to the ECHR in 1951, before it came into force in 1953. It has been strengthened over the years by protocols, and the 1998 Act was a huge step forward in putting those rights on a footing whereby they could be enforced in the UK’s domestic courts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) set out, the ECHR reflects—not in totality, but in large parts—domestic laws both passed by Parliament and in previous common law. My hon. Friend’s views on the matter are always thoughtful and considered.
How are we doing in relation to the rights that we now recognise as forming our human rights framework? Let us not judge ourselves; let us see how others judge us. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley remarked that we have a proud track record. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg considered 354 applications against the UK, which equates to 5.34 applications per million inhabitants—the lowest of all 47 states parties, and one tenth of the European average. Only 21 cases were considered by the Court to be potentially of merit and were sent to the UK for a response, with just two judgments against the UK. That touches on a point that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made about the need to strike a sensible and appropriate balance when considering such issues in a domestic context, which I think the UK generally does.
After the UK has left the EU, it will continue to afford its citizens access to well-established domestic and international mechanisms to bring their case and obtain appropriate remedies.
I am pleased to hear that the Minister has read the biography of David Maxwell Fyfe. On our future commitment to the ECHR, at the moment there is real concern that the Conservative party’s positon is to remain a signatory for the duration of this Parliament only. Can the Minister give a guarantee for the next Parliament and beyond?
If the shadow Minister is patient, I will turn to what our ongoing position is—a number of Members have made that point. He may or may not be satisfied, but I will seek to answer him.
As I was saying, individuals will be able to obtain appropriate remedies when they consider their rights to have been breached. That will remain under our common law, the devolution statutes and, of course, the Human Rights Act 1998.
At the beginning of this month, the shadow Justice Secretary, the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), asked my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, to
“give a reassurance...that the Government will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act in the aftermath of our departure from the European Union”.
The Secretary of State answered:
“We certainly have no plans to do so”.—[Official Report, 5 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 163.]
I believe that that offers reassurance—perhaps not as specific as my shadow might wish, but it offers reassurance.
As we made clear in the Chequers White Paper, and as is clear in the political declaration, the UK is committed to membership of the European convention on human rights and will remain a party to it after we have left the European Union. The Lord Chancellor, and in this Chamber, the shadow Minister and others, read out the wording of our manifesto commitment on the matter. Our future relationship with the EU should be underpinned by our shared values of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. As reflected in my opening comments, the UK is committed to human rights. Our exit from the EU does not change that or signal a desire to reduce human rights protections.
I reiterate that most of those protections stem from work by the Council of Europe and under the ECHR, rather than from the EU, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out eloquently in his speech. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of all those hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, who serve on the Council of Europe. It is an organisation that, though not spoken about as often as it perhaps should be, continues to do very good work quietly and persistently. With that in mind, while I recognise the courtesy with which the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) made her point, I simply do not share her view that Brexit will leave any deep hole in human rights protections in this country.
More broadly, I too enjoyed reading Professor Miller’s recent report, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East cited, and the work undertaken for the Scottish Government by the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, which proposed new ways to draw further international commitments to which the UK is party into Scotland’s legislative framework. To underpin seven recommendations in the report, Professor Miller engaged in the broader debate about human rights in the context of socio-economic considerations and whether those should sit in a revised framework. That is part of a broader political and philosophical debate, with different views, as we have seen in the Chamber today. I suspect it is a debate that will continue. The hon. Gentleman asked whether it would continue in this place, and I have no doubt that if it does not, he will seek a debate on exactly that subject.
The SNP spokesperson, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), asked that I read and consider the report and its contents. I will do so; I am happy to read it again and to consider it carefully. I cannot give a commitment about whether I will agree with everything in it, but I will certainly reflect on it carefully, as I do with anything she suggests that I should read.
UN human rights treaties have not been incorporated into UK domestic law, and they do not require states parties to do that. The UK has instead put in place a combination of policies and legislation to give effect to the UN human rights treaties that it has ratified. We have a long-standing tradition of not only ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, but fulfilling our international human rights obligations. That aspect should not be neglected.
Some hon. Members touched on the report of the UN special rapporteur. As other Ministers have made clear, the Government will consider carefully the rapporteur’s interim findings, but they disagree with the conclusions reached by the rapporteur, highlighting that, compared with 2010, for example, income inequality has fallen, the number of children in workless households is at a record low, and 1 million fewer people are in absolute poverty. I suspect, however, that that is a debate for another day—it could take at least another hour and a half, if not more.
I am the Minister responsible for overseeing the UK’s obligations under the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and its optional protocol, and under the UN covenants on economic, social and cultural rights and on civil and political rights, not forgetting the UN human rights peer review process, the universal periodic review. I take those responsibilities seriously, and last year I went in person to Geneva to discuss the UK’s role in relation to the convention against torture with officials. Broadly, in my conversation with them, I was clear—as were they—that the UK has a continuing role in leading the way on human rights in the world.
The title of this debate is “Human Rights in the UK’, so let me sum up by reflecting on the fact that the UK has a rich tapestry of rights running throughout our history, for hundreds of years, and reaching out across the globe. They neither began nor will end with the EU, and many of the key rights stem from the Council of Europe. I appreciate entirely that, during times of change, voices will rightly be raised to question protections and the future, challenging Government. It is absolutely right for that debate to take place.
Let us focus on the commitments given, the protections in place and our historical role—we should be judged on those and on this country’s proud commitment to human rights. Many have suggested that human rights matter; I go further, echoing the words of my noble Friend Lord Keen of Elie: human rights are central to the way we live now and to the way we wish to live in the future. They are an integral part of the society of which we wish to be a part, and a reflection of our identity as individuals and as a country.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, and you, Mr Gapes, for chairing it. In particular, although we might not agree on everything, I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East. I suspect that we will return to the subject in future—quite rightly so.
I know we are nearly out of time, so I will be brief. I thank everyone who has participated in the debate. I am slightly concerned that a few more Members did not turn up, particularly because we do not seem to have that big a distraction in the main Chamber at the moment—unlike with many debates in the Westminster Hall Chamber in the past. Perhaps as the months go on, we will encourage more of our colleagues to take part.
I have a couple of quick points to make. I will have to check the transcript, but I did not get from the Minister quite the unequivocal and categorical assurances that I sought on commitment to the existing Human Rights Act and the protections that it affords, or—several Members requested this—on no falling behind after Brexit, if rights improve in other European countries. I hope that we get such assurances in future, but that ambiguity—if no other reason—ensures that we will return to this debate in the months ahead.
Finally, I invite my Council of Europe colleague, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), to reconsider his attitude on whether social and economic rights should be accorded the same status as civil and political rights. After all, in this country we have a body of legislation that already gives people the right to education and to housing in some circumstances. As time goes on, we will want to incorporate such rights into the body of what we know as human rights. It is cold comfort, is it not, to know that we have the right to free expression if we are starving on the streets and have neither an income nor a home to live in. I am sure that we will return to the subject in the months to come.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights in the UK.