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Bill of Rights Bill

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 16 May 2023

The Human Rights Act 1998 is an essential piece of legislation that protects us all from abuses of power, yet the Bill of Rights Bill proposes to scrap it, weakening human rights protections in UK law and making it harder for people to hold the Government and other public bodies to account. If the Minister will not answer my question about the Bill’s future, can he at least commit to keeping the Human Rights Act on the statute book?

I have already welcomed the Lord Chancellor to his position. He will know that, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is not a legal maxim, but it is still a sound one that may apply in this case. If it were thought necessary to make changes to the human rights regime in this country, perhaps the report of Sir Peter Gross offers a better way forward, but does he also agree that his Department’s important priorities are those that affect people’s day-to-day lives in their interactions with the justice system? Ensuring that we have fully efficient and working court systems and an efficient and human prison system may therefore be higher priorities. Perhaps meeting the Bar Council and the Law Society to iron out the remaining matters from the Bellamy review and ensuring that we have a proper prison workforce strategy, rather than legislating, may therefore be his best priorities—

I welcome the Justice Secretary to his place. Positive obligations are a cornerstone of the Human Rights Act 1998. They mean that the state must protect as well as refrain from restricting our rights. The victims of the black cab rapist John Worboys used these obligations to hold the police to account for failing to properly investigate more than 105 alleged rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated by him. How can this Government be trusted on ending violence against women and girls when the previous Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) wanted to rip up that Act and those obligations? Will the new Justice Secretary commit himself to protecting them and the rights they give to victims?

The rights that the hon. Lady refers to derive from the European convention on human rights: the right to life, the privilege against torture and inhumane or degrading treatment, the right to a fair trial, the right to a family life, and so on. Those stand apart from the Human Rights Act, but she is correct to say that they are important rights. The only thing I would take issue with is where she talks about violence against women and girls. It is the Conservative party that made coercive and controlling behaviour a criminal offence—Labour did not. It is this party that made stalking a criminal offence—Labour did not. It is this party that made non-fatal strangulation a stand-alone criminal offence—Labour did not. And it is this party that passed Acts such as the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and will pass Acts such as the Victims and Prisoners Bill to ensure that victims are properly served.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to be seen as a Justice Secretary who will stand up for the rule of law and access to justice, he should be putting the greatest possible distance between himself and the dreadful pet project of his predecessor by disowning the Bill of Rights altogether. Importantly, will he stop that Bill being split up and dropped into other pieces of legislation, as we have already seen with the Illegal Migration Bill? Instead of undermining respect for international rights, why does he not work to incorporate more rights into domestic law, such as the UN convention on the rights of the child?

Human rights matter. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. I reiterate this point, because it is important: one of the most vital aspects of access to justice is the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers. That matters, because it is a bulwark against the power of an overweening state. He should know that. Why is he playing so fast and loose with hard-won Scottish freedoms?