Skip to main content

Human Rights

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022

The Government stand by their manifesto commitment to update the Human Rights Act 1998. Obviously we want to look at the best way to do this and we are therefore looking again at the Bill of Rights to ensure that we deliver on the Government’s objectives as effectively as possible. And, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) has just outlined, we remain a committed party to the European convention on human rights.

Has the Secretary of State proposals to protect free speech from the use of strategic lawsuits against public participation?

Yes. SLAPPs, as they are referred to, are an abuse of the legal system involving people using legal threats and litigation to silence journalists, campaigners and public bodies. The invasion of Ukraine has heightened concerns about oligarchs abusing these laws and seeking to shut down reporting on their corruption and economic crime. I have met the Justice Minister and Deputy Justice Minister from Ukraine to talk about these issues. I am still determined to introduce legislation to deal with SLAPPs and with freedom of speech more widely.

The Minister is crying out for alternatives and advice, but section 3 of the Human Rights Act requires Parliament to ensure the compatibility of UK legislation with the European convention on human rights

“so far as it is possible to do so”.

Why, then, are his Government so intent on removing these protections altogether, when the Act already grants them this obvious flexibility?

I will say two things. First, we want to ensure that we have protection of freedom of speech, as in some areas we are seeing a sad increase in the cancel culture and, importantly, the targeted anti-SLAPP reforms will be able to be deliver through a statutory definition of a SLAPP, with identifying characteristics and cost protections for SLAPPs cases, giving absolute confidence that we are not going to have our legal system abused by ne’er-do-wells and foreign oligarchs trying to suppress the reality of what is happening in situations such as those in Ukraine.

To save me raising a point of order later, I want to say in response to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), that we are constantly saying that there should be safe and legal routes. If he looks them up, he will find out what our solutions are to the Rwanda plan.

Professor Aileen McHarg, a professor of public law and human rights at Durham Law School, has told the Joint Committee on Human Rights that she has

“no doubt that…any changes to the Human Rights Act will have knock-on consequences for the scope of devolved competence.”

Does the Secretary of State agree with her? Assuming that he does, does he also accept that this brings any future reforms firmly within the scope of the Sewel convention and that he must therefore seek the consent of the Scottish Parliament?

On the hon. Lady’s opening remark, one thing that was not clear from the questions asked is that we have to ensure we are cracking down on the people who are abusing the system and abusing people through modern slavery and using these tragic life-threatening transports. I make no apology, and nor does anybody in this Government, for trying to do the right thing and crack down on those criminals. I have already said that we are looking at the Bill of Rights, and she will be able to see what we are bringing forward in due course to ensure that we are delivering on our objectives correctly. I repeat that we are a committed party to the European convention on human rights.

I am not sure that that was an answer to my question. However, assuming that the Secretary of State does agree with Professor Aileen McHarg and that he will consult the Scottish Parliament, if the Scottish Parliament, on behalf of the people of Scotland, says no—as it absolutely will do—to tinkering with our human rights, will he stop tinkering with them, or will he do as many Members right across this House do and dismiss the views of the people of Scotland, thus adding to the very many reasons to say yes to independence and yes to retaining our human rights?

It did not take long to get on to a separatist debate in oral questions today, but as I have said, we are looking at the Bill of Rights. Actually, the Government have consulted all the devolved authorities through the entire process of looking at the Bill of Rights; I know that my predecessor did that as well. I will always look to continue to engage, but we are committed to delivering on our manifesto pledges and doing the right thing by the people of the United Kingdom—all of the United Kingdom.