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European Convention on Human Rights

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 23 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to encourage compliance with the Convention on Human Rights (1) in the United Kingdom, and (2) across Europe.

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to abiding by their obligations under the convention, in line with the Brighton declaration of 2012, agreed under the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. We will continue to lead efforts to ensure the effective implementation of the convention by all state parties, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation afforded to them under that declaration.

I thank him for his Answer, but I am afraid what Amnesty International has called the “rights removal Bill”, which was published yesterday, tells a rather different story. Its provisions drastically dilute the positive obligations on the police to protect the public from sexual and violent crimes, and it attempts to break the vital link between our domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. How can Ministers get on aeroplanes to talk about human rights elsewhere in the world while promoting such a hatchet job at home?

I thank the House for its welcome. As the House knows, this afternoon we have an Oral Statement during which we can go into some of these questions in more detail. If I may at this stage confine myself to general terms, the Government’s view is that this Bill will strengthen our human rights framework in this country, in particular—and these are the key words I would like to introduce—by introducing a better balance in the human rights framework, a better balance between the judiciary and the legislature, a better balance between UK judges and Strasbourg, and a better balance between rights and obligations. We stay in the convention; the rights in the convention are still there in UK statute; but we seek to rebalance and clarify, in the words of the Act, and thereby restore public confidence in our human rights framework.

My Lords, I also welcome my noble and learned friend to his present place; he is very welcome. Would he agree that in a parliamentary democracy there is a great deal to be said for leaving to the Supreme Court of this country the ultimate interpretation of the meanings of rights and their applications? If Parliament happens to disagree with that interpretation, Parliament can reverse or modify it, whereas if the ultimate arbiter is the European court, that is not possible. Is that not a serious democratic deficit?

My Lords, Article 46 of the European Convention on Human Rights is very clear:

“The High Contracting Parties undertake to abide by the final judgment of the Court in any case to which they are parties”.

This is more fundamental than subsidiarity or a margin of appreciation, because now the Government plan to make our own courts the final court of appeal. How do the Government reconcile this with the clear obligations under Article 46 of the convention?

My Lords, the United Kingdom remains bound by Article 46 of the convention. In the unlikely and relatively rare event, let it be hoped, that the United Kingdom is found in breach of the convention, it will be a matter of political discussion and settlement in the context of the Committee of Ministers, as has happened from time to time in the past—for example in relation to prisoner voting. That situation remains unchanged. It is the Government’s view that, within this framework, we are achieving a better balance in the mechanics of the convention rather than the fundamental principles.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that, by definition, there can be no hierarchy of human rights and they should be exactly the same whether for those in Europe or Britain, or for those seeking refuge and asylum in small, leaky boats?

My Lords, the convention recognises a margin of appreciation and the principle of subsidiarity as to how each of the member states implements their duties under the convention. There is no hierarchy as such, but there are going to be variations in the way those rights are secured. In particular, this Bill redefines and promotes the right to freedom of speech, which lies at the heart of our democracy.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the European Convention on Human Rights will for ever be linked to David Maxwell Fyfe who, supported by Winston Churchill, was one of its principal authors. It is implicit in the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that, over the years since its passage, we have been both a leader by example and an influencer in Europe. Is the Minister really satisfied—I am sorry to say this in welcoming him—to continue to be a member of a Government who are quite clearly using civil liberties, human rights and the convention itself as what is described as a wedge issue to inflame and enthuse the right wing of the Tory party, instead of giving the moral leadership that all parties have taken pride in since its inception?

My Lords, respectfully, I do not accept the characterisation put forward by the noble Lord. The approach in this Bill is balanced, as I have just explained, and is described in this morning’s Times as a “constructive and sound” approach—a phrase that I would readily adopt. I fully accept that the great tradition of this country by great lawyers such as David Maxwell Fyfe should, and does, continue. The UK is one of the most active members of the Council of Europe. We have not only promoted the Brighton declaration I referred to a moment ago, which finally came into force last October, but we have recently been party to a further recommendation on better dissemination of human rights information across the Council of Europe and to a declaration to revitalise Articles 5 and 6 on liberty and the right to a fair trial. We have taken a lead in dealing with the situation regarding Russia and on generally improving the mechanics of the court. That leading role will continue.

My Lords, I welcome the noble and learned Lord to the Dispatch Box. When the Human Rights Act was incorporated into the ECHR in 1998, I was a delegate to the Council of Europe. I remember many speeches in this Chamber and in the Strasbourg assembly about the importance of that incorporation process. Many of the speeches were directed to our new eastern European friends about the importance of the ECHR. My noble friend’s Question is about the impact of this proposed legislation in Europe. Does the Minister believe that the Bill of Rights Bill introduced yesterday will enhance or detract from compliance with the convention in Europe?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his welcome. The Government believe that, when we have cleared away the fog surrounding this Bill, and fully understood it and together analysed it in detail, it will be seen to be a reinforcement of human rights. It will not detract from the framework of human rights or have any adverse effect on our friends and allies in eastern Europe and other members of the Council of Europe.

My Lords, it is a convention right that one should have a vote for the legislature that makes one’s laws. Can my noble and learned friend say whether he considers that that right is being vindicated in Northern Ireland at the moment, which is subject to laws made by a foreign power with no democratic say, or is democracy simply a matter of a margin of appreciation?

My Lords, I anticipate that that question is somewhat outside the ambit of the present debate. I can add that, in relation to Northern Ireland, the Government are satisfied that this Bill complies with the Good Friday agreement, the withdrawal agreement and other relevant enactments affecting Northern Ireland. I think that is as far as I can go today.