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British Bill of Rights

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 10 December 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the reported delays in bringing forward a British Bill of Rights, whether they will rule out introducing legislation that will purport to relieve the United Kingdom from its obligation to comply with final decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

My Lords, we will set out our proposals in due course. While we want to remain part of the ECHR, we will not stay at any cost. If we cannot achieve a satisfactory settlement within the convention, we may have no option but to consider withdrawal. However, we are confident that we can make progress from within the ECHR.

My Lords, the convention obligation to comply with final decisions of the Strasbourg court protects us all against breaches by Governments, in other Council of Europe countries and our own. In the light of the Russian Constitutional Court’s decision that Russian domestic laws should trump Strasbourg decisions, do the Government not accept that if we took a similar line—let alone threatened to leave—it would encourage other Governments to do the same? Will the Government commit on this Human Rights Day that they still accept that the binding obligation to comply with final decisions of the Strasbourg court is the bedrock on which the convention is built?

My Lords, the legislation passed by the Russian Duma does not actually mean that Russia is leaving the ECHR. It was a response to a decision of the ECHR about the unfettered right to tap phone calls and Article 8. This Government remain absolutely committed to the protection of human rights, both here and abroad, on this international Human Rights Day. We are party to no fewer than, I think, seven explicit treaties protecting human rights, as well as many others which bear on them. We will remain within the convention and the obligations under Article 46. Any future plans will involve the protection of all those rights contained within the convention.

My Lords, does that mean that the Government accept the proposition put by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, that they will not try to rule out the obligation of this country to comply with decisions of the European Court of Human Rights? Does the Minister agree that, given the proud history that this country has had leading other countries in Europe, if we were to take a different view it could mean the dismantling of the fairer and more just Europe which we in this country, including his party, have tried to maintain and to build?

As the noble and learned Lord knows, Article 46 requires all members of the Council of Europe to adhere to the convention, and the implementation of decisions is subject to the supervision of the Committee of Ministers. We have an extremely good record in complying with recommendations of the Committee of Ministers. There is one outstanding matter, of which the House is well aware, where there is a tension between a decision clearly made by Parliament and a decision made by the Committee of Ministers. My ministerial colleague attended the day before yesterday; we have yet to hear the outcome.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that to remove ourselves from the convention means in effect to remove ourselves from the Council of Europe, for which this is the bedrock? Does he also recall that the Prime Minister sacked the former Attorney-General precisely because of his concerns over this and that the only countries which will rejoice if we adopt this policy of half-in half-out when choosing whether to accept judgments of the court will be the serial defaulters, such as Russia?

Clearly, I would not wish to comment on the circumstances of the former Attorney-General’s departure from government. I accept that it is important that we comply with our treaty obligations and we have no intention of departing from them. We have a proud record of complying with human rights obligations and protecting human rights throughout the world. It is no part of the Government’s intention that we in any way weaken our resolve to protect human rights here or abroad.

My Lords, the Minister has been more equivocal in his replies to this House than was Michael Gove in the evidence he gave to the Constitution Committee recently. Will the Minister confirm that the Government have no intention of following the example of the Russian Federation in its recent legislation?

I have, of course, read what the Secretary of State said to the Constitution Committee, of which the noble Lord is a distinguished member. I do not think anything I have said is divergent from the evidence he gave and we certainly have no intention of legislating specifically as the Russian Duma did yesterday.

My Lords, given the extremely difficult situation the world community faces, is this really the right moment to repeal the Human Rights Act? Do the Government really believe they are setting a good example to other countries, some of which may not have the same respect for the rule of law as we traditionally have, by repealing the Human Rights Act and inevitably coming into conflict with the ECHR?

The repeal of the Human Rights Act is part of a manifesto commitment; it does not in any way diminish our respect for the importance of protecting human rights. What we are concerned with is the overreach of the Strasbourg court and the relationship between this Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Strasbourg court. This does not mean that there is any diminishing of our respect for the protection of human rights.

Does the Minister recognise that while he keeps referring to our good record in this respect, Russia has a very bad record and is introducing legislation to try to give effect to its dissent? Does he not understand that it would have an historic significance if we were to withdraw because it would lend credence to the present moves within Russia and, indeed, encourage such activity elsewhere?

As I indicated to the House and the noble Lord, it is not our intention to withdraw from the ECHR, although, as the Secretary of State said, we cannot rule it out absolutely. We are confident that we can realign our relationship with the Strasbourg court in a satisfactory way, which means we comply with our international obligations and bring some common sense back to the business of human rights.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this country’s proud record of respecting human rights goes back well before the creation of the Strasbourg court? As far as courts are concerned, does he also agree that the membership of our Supreme Court is at least as distinguished as the membership of the Strasbourg court and that some would say more so?

I am grateful to my noble friend. He is, of course, absolutely right that this Parliament and our courts have always been astute at protecting human rights. We had human rights long before 1998, when the Human Rights Act was brought into force. Our Supreme Court will continue to protect them. Our Supreme Court has the admiration of the whole country. The Strasbourg court has judges of, I have to say, varying quality.