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European Convention on Human Rights

Volume 743: debated on Thursday 7 March 2013

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

My Lords, as the only male to have the temerity to be on the list today, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Did not the Home Secretary argue recently that the next Tory election manifesto should include a pledge to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, thus reflecting the views of many Conservative MPs? Was that not described by the former Justice Secretary as “laughable and childlike”? Does not this division on a serious issue of policy show evidence of a hopeless split in the Conservative-led Government today?

My Lords, I speak at this Dispatch Box for the coalition Government and the coalition Government’s policy on the European Convention on Human Rights is very clear. The noble Lord asked a specific question, “Is it our policy to withdraw?”, and I gave him a specific Answer: “The Answer is no”.

My Lords, do the Government recognise the link between this Question and the previous three in that the European Court of Human Rights has played a major role over the past 40 or so years in combating arbitrary discrimination on grounds of sex and race and other invidious grounds?

My Lords, I find that a very helpful contribution. When the question, “Are you in favour of the European Convention on Human Rights?” is asked, certain people will see the word Europe and their eyes will start spinning round. As the noble Lord has pointed out, however, if you ask people, “Do you want built into law protection against the power of the state?”, in the way that he has just illustrated, they will invariably say, “Yes, please”.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his clear and concise Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. Does he accept that Britain has an enviable record in promoting human rights and the rule of law throughout the world? What sort of response does he think he would get from people like Mugabe if we were to withdraw at this stage from the provisions of human rights legislation in this country?

My noble friend asks a helpful question in putting this matter into perspective. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has quite rightly made human rights, and Britain’s championing of human rights, part of his soft diplomacy strategy. It has been greatly to his credit and to the credit of the United Kingdom. It is important that we have a record that we can be proud of when we look at other regimes and criticise them about their human rights record.

The Minister gave an unequivocal Answer to the Question about withdrawal. However, can he be equally unequivocal about any plans to dilute the application of the European Convention on Human Rights to things where there is a conflict between the judgment of the court in Strasbourg and the view of a Government in the House of Commons?

My Lords, I think that “dilute” is the wrong word. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, pointed out in his interview the other day, the relationship between our Supreme Court and the Strasbourg court is a healthy one of learning from each other and looking at each other’s jurisprudence as it develops. What we have been doing, and one of the proudest things I have been involved in as a Minister, was the Brighton conference on the workings of the court which looked at how we can build in a subsidiarity to take notice of the importance of national supreme courts while still retaining the strength and the moral authority of the European Convention on Human Rights.

My Lords, whether human rights are best protected by the Supreme Court, by Parliament or by Strasbourg, all noble Lords are anxious to protect them. However, even human rights have a cost. Public authorities are spending a great deal of money trying to make their policies compliant with the convention—rather like with health and safety—when the Strasbourg jurisprudence is extremely uncertain. The diminishing pot of legal aid is being spent on often unmeritorious cases about human rights, rather than on far more meritorious cases. I was one of the commissioners, and we were not allowed to consider questions of cost. I ask the Minister whether the Government, in the whole human rights debate, could tell us how much human rights is costing.

I am not able to put a cost to human rights any more than to anything else. I see in government—and I suppose that we have a lot of experience of local government in this House—how agents of the state, as the noble Lord said, when making decisions have in the back of their mind that they have to clear certain hurdles about respect for the individual citizen. To me, this is a prize beyond cost.

Can the Minister match his welcome, unequivocal statement that there is no intention to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights on the question of repeal of the Human Rights Act? Will he confirm that the Government have no intention to seek to repeal the Act?

Both publicly and privately, I sense that there is no majority in this Parliament in favour of repeal of the Human Rights Act. If an individual party at the next election wants to put repeal in its manifesto, that is its privilege and right, and it will have to take that to the hustings. It will not be in the manifesto of the Liberal Democrats.