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UK’s Human Rights Framework

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2022

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on reforming the UK’s human rights framework. (905497)

5. What steps he is taking in response to the publication of the Independent Human Rights Act Review published by his Department in December 2021. (905500)

Under this Prime Minister and this Government, before the next election, we will replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a Bill of Rights to end the abuse of the framework and the system by dangerous criminals and to restore some common sense.

The Justice Secretary claims that his reforms will protect free speech—a right that already receives special protection in the Human Rights Act—yet simultaneously the Government want to criminalise exercise of the right to protest, through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and there are already plans to take away whistleblower protections in the Official Secrets Act. Is it all free speech the Justice Secretary aims to protect, or only the kind his Government want to hear?

I thank the hon. Lady, because she raises a good substantive point. We want to strengthen and reinforce the right of free speech, in particular given some of the judge-led privacy law we have, but also some of the encroachments on free speech we have seen in political debate. I think constituents of Members in all parts of the House would recognise the difference between free speech, lawful protest and, frankly, the downright sabotage that we have seen by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, where we are right to legislate to protect the freedoms of others.

This is not new territory for the Secretary of State. He has been around this course. He failed last time of course, because he could only do what he wanted by leaving the European convention on human rights. That is still the situation now, so will it be Government policy that we should follow the human rights example of Belarus in leaving the protections of the convention?

We have been around this house a few times. It is precisely because our reforms through a Bill of Rights can make a substantial difference by injecting some common sense without leaving the European convention that we will proceed. I will give one example. I visited HMP Frankland in Durham. It is a high-security category A prison. One of the challenges in dealing with terrorist offenders, particularly those who could infect the minds of others, is the issue of separation centres. We are increasingly seeing litigation claims claiming article 8 as a right to socialise getting in our way. That is a good example for the common-sense approach and the balance we want to have. I am very surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is opposed to it.

The position is that the Government commissioned an independent review, did not like the conclusions and so have simply just ditched them. Why should anyone have any faith that the Government will listen to their consultation responses if they are so hellbent on pursuing what Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC has labelled an

“indefensible…inward-looking and cowardly”

retreat from human rights?

I am very grateful for the independent Human Rights Act review. We looked very carefully at all the recommendations, some of which we take on board and for others we are going to innovate in different areas. I will give one example. I suspect the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would want us to reform the system to stop foreign national offenders, whether they are living in Scotland or any other part of the UK, from frustrating deportation orders on the most flimsy, elastic grounds created by article 8. That is something we will do, and I think he should support it.

I am grateful that my right hon. Friend made reference to the independent review of the Human Rights Act. I am sure he would want to join me in thanking the right hon. Sir Peter Gross, the chair of that review, and his colleagues for their exceptionally hard and diligent work in this regard. Sir Peter gave evidence to the Justice Committee last week. He pointed out that while the Government have published their own consultation document—“Human Rights Act Reform: A Modern Bill of Rights”—that document is not in fact a response to the independent Human Rights Act review report. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it would only be fair and courteous to Sir Peter and his colleagues to ensure that once the consultation on the Government’s document is concluded, their response to that consultation includes a full response to Sir Peter’s panel’s review, including detailed replies to all the points the Government do or do not accept, exactly as was done with the Faulks review?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee. First, I have already thanked the chair and all the panel, but I am happy to join my hon. Friend in doing so again. The IHRAR panel produced a well-considered and useful report, and I considered it very carefully. The consultation that we are pursuing is ongoing, and includes—this is an important point—areas beyond the terms of reference of the IHRAR report, such as adding a recognition of the right to trial by jury and strengthening freedom of expression, which Members have already raised. There are also areas where the Government wish to explore only a subset of the options considered by that review, and section 3 is a good illustration of that.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister outline how his reforms to the Human Rights Act and a new British Bill of Rights can help us to take back control of our borders and stop the small boats crisis in the channel?

Clearly the issue of small boats goes well beyond issues in the European convention on human rights, but what I would say to my hon. Friend more generally is that the reforms we are pursuing allow us to take more firm action under the Nationality and Borders Bill and under wider powers to deal with foreign national offenders. He should be aware that some 70% of claims by foreign national offenders scuppering deportation orders are under article 8. That is clearly an area where we can reform.

I am tired of hearing the rights of asylum seekers so desperate to get here that they will go on these dangerous boats conflated with those of dangerous foreign national offenders. The Secretary of State needs to stop drawing that parallel.

I echo the Chair of the Select Committee in calling for a full response to Sir Peter Gross QC. Indeed, I wonder why the Government bothered to appoint him if they were not going to listen to him. Does the Secretary of State at least agree with his first recommendation, which is that there should be a full and robust programme of education about what the Human Rights Act actually is? Or would that be a bit of a hindrance to this Government’s programme of misinformation?

It is precisely through the process of consultation on our proposal for a Bill of Rights that we can have a proper, substantive debate, listen to all sides of the argument and inject some common sense back into the system, and disseminate that more widely. I think that constituents of hon. Members in all parts of the House would appreciate that.

The other thing that the Secretary of State keeps on doing is saying that we have to review this because there are so many dangerous foreign criminals, but will he listen to the UK security services, who know more about dangerous foreign criminals than he does? They have warned that overhauling the Human Rights Act could affect their ability to provide evidence in secret. I know he knows why that is dangerous, particularly in terrorism cases, so will he listen to them and to his predecessor in this role, who has also warned that this could make the UK, and by extension all of us, less secure?

May I gently say to the hon. Member that there is an issue around extraterritorial jurisdiction, where we will want to consult very carefully? Whether it is the deportation of foreign national offenders—and no, I am sorry, but we will keep talking about that; it is something that our constituents care about, and this is a reform that needs to happen—or whether it is parole reform, which I believe we also need to undertake, or separation centres in our most high-security prisons, these are all areas where the public, constituents of hon. Members in all parts of the House, will expect us to take a common-sense approach. That is exactly what our Bill of Rights will achieve.