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European Court of Human Rights

Volume 833: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what further consideration they have given to the role of the European Court of Human Rights in considering cases from the United Kingdom.

And thanks to you too, Lord Speaker. We are filled with deep sadness at losing a treasured friend and colleague—but Murray would have been the first to say, “Get on with it, George!”, so I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, in the same spirit, I shall answer straightaway. The United Kingdom has a long-standing tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically and are fulfilling our international human rights obligations. The Government remain committed to a human rights framework that is up to date, fit for purpose and works for the British people.

I am grateful to the Minister and to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, who has been very helpful on this issue in the past. Only four cases have gone from the UK to the court of human rights, whereas it is vital for other countries that are not so good at giving their citizens proper human rights. As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, knows, we have now nominated John Howell MP, the leader of the delegation from the United Kingdom to the parliamentary assembly, to be the next European commissioner for human rights. Does not it undermine all that when Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch keep on talking about withdrawing from the convention on human rights, apparently in some sort of bid for leadership?

My Lords, I have stated the Government’s position, which is that we are members of the convention, and that is also reflected in the Good Friday agreement and the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU. There is no change in that position, and the statements to which the noble Lord refers do not reflect the position of the Government.

My Lords—amazing! There were no interruptions. I very strongly support the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Foulkes, who is in effect asking the British Government to obey the law made by Conservative Governments of which the Prime Minister was Sir Winston Churchill. Is not it extraordinary that Cabinet Ministers are flouting the law and, in effect, forcing their own Government to break their word?

My Lords, respectfully I do not accept that the Government are flouting the law. The United Kingdom has the lowest per capita number of cases in front of the court of human rights. We represent 0.1% of the court’s caseload. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said a moment ago, it is very important to encourage other countries to obey the law. We continue to play a very large part in the convention and in the Council of Europe, and we support its work across the board. I just add that the situation has changed very significantly since the aftermath of the Second World War, when Sir Winston led that particular initiative. One has to bear in mind that institutions must respond to international changes and developments.

My Lords, now that we have thankfully seen the back of the Bill of Rights Bill, do the Government accept that the UK’s commitment to the binding undertaking in Article 46 of the convention to abide by final decisions of the Strasbourg court was in fact unquestionably threatened by that Bill? Does the noble and learned Lord also agree that that commitment is a vital safeguard for people in the UK, despite the small number of cases in the Strasbourg court affecting the UK today, against the abuse of human rights by Governments of whatever political persuasion in the future?

My Lords, as long as the Government are party to the convention, of course we respect Article 46. I do not accept that the Bill of Rights Bill, subsequently withdrawn, in any way undermined our commitment to the convention; it merely rebalanced the various rights and duties as set out in the UK Human Rights Act.

My Lords, the House will know that the Minister of the Interior in France has speculated on the use of primary legislation to disapply some aspects of the European convention in the case of France, because of the immigration crisis in that country. Is it not incumbent on our own Government to at least investigate whether, in the UK’s national interest, we could do something similar?

My Lords, the Government have noted the remarks by the Minister of the Interior for the French Government and we emphasise that it is important to pursue dialogue with international partners to ensure that the framework for dealing with these difficult matters is properly up to date. As my right honourable friend the Minister for Immigration said in the other place yesterday, we work closely with friends and allies to ensure that this is the case.

My Lords, what happened to collective responsibility in the Cabinet? Is it not appropriate that either the Home Secretary goes or the Prime Minister goes?

My Lords, we are discussing the Human Rights Act and the convention at the moment, and I am not able to comment any further on collective responsibility.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that John Howell was my Parliamentary Private Secretary and remains a good friend. Does my noble and learned friend agree that his nomination is a manifestation of the Government’s continuing commitment to the convention and, indeed, to the principles that it enshrines?

My Lords, when I visited the Strasbourg court some while ago, it was full of enthusiasm about the good co-operation between our courts and the European Court of Human Rights. I was told there that any weakening of this country’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights would encourage the notorious abusers of human rights to say, “If the Brits don’t go along with it, why should we?” That is why it is so damaging when Cabinet Ministers make the comments that they have done.

I entirely accept that dialogue is important. We have a very productive dialogue with the European Court of Human Rights. It has touched recently on the important question of Rule 39, and it has been a very constructive dialogue which I hope will continue.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, asked a question about France and how it is seeking to rebalance its relationship. I listened very carefully to the noble and learned Lord’s answer to my noble friend’s Question. He talked about an up-to-date human rights framework and went on to describe the now rejected Bill of Rights as a rebalancing of rights. Are these hints that we might see some legislation in the forthcoming King’s Speech seeking to rebalance those rights?

It is probably no surprise to say that I am not privy to the contents of the King’s Speech but. as far as I am best aware, the answer to the noble Lord’s question is no.

My Lords, I remind the noble and learned Lord that his boss, the Lord Chancellor, appeared before the Justice and Home Affairs Committee of this House just before lunchtime. I urge noble Lords to read that evidence and take heart from it, and I urge the Minister to do so too. I hope his words will be taken forward as commitment to the ECHR, and that Section 3 of the Human Rights Act will not keep being disapplied from future Bills in this House.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that global and regional challenges need global and regional solutions, and that individual countries seeking to disapply do not help the situation?

As I have just said, ideally, international collaboration and joint solutions are far preferable to unilateral action.

My Lords, notwithstanding my noble and learned friend’s comments about the possible need for change due to the passage of time, should we not always remember that it was a very distinguished Conservative, David Maxwell Fyfe, later Viscount Kilmuir and Lord Chancellor in this House, who drafted much of the present convention?

My Lords, will the Minister undertake to educate Cabinet colleagues about the specific impact that leaving the convention would have on the Good Friday agreement, and on our trade and co-operation agreement with the EU? I refer him to the Institute for Government, which has recently published analysis that says it would have a huge destabilising and damaging impact.

Not being a member of the Cabinet, I cannot give the noble Baroness that undertaking, but I am sure the Government as a whole are well aware of the implications of what we are discussing.