[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Correspondence from the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, relating to the introduction of the Bill of Rights Bill, reported to the House on 29 June, Correspondence from the Lord Chancellor on the introduction of the Bill of Rights Bill and Bill of Rights Bill Human Rights Memorandum, reported to the House on 20 July, Correspondence from the Lord Chancellor confirming that the Bill of Rights Bill has been paused, reported to the House on 19 October, and the Thirteenth Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2021-22, Human Rights Act Reform, HC 1033, and the Government’s response, HC 608.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 607712, relating to human rights legislation reform.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. More than 230,000 people have signed this petition, including 283 people from my own constituency of Blackpool South. It is obvious why a petition on human rights has been incredibly popular and gained such widespread support.
This country has always been a leading champion of human rights, democracy and freedoms internationally and possesses a proud history stretching all the way back to Magna Carta in 1215. This has progressed, and rightly so, to a huge number of rights across all aspects of life and society to provide people with freedom of expression and a right to education and safety in the workplace, among many other things.
However, there is increasingly a perception that the current “rights culture” is contrary to common sense and flies in the face of the original purpose behind the various pieces of legislation. In some cases that has provided a platform for criminals hoping to escape punishment or delay and frustrate natural justice.
Will the hon. Member give way?
I will make some progress. The creator of this e-petition stated that he did not want any changes to the Human Rights Act 1998 because he was concerned that people’s human rights would be less respected. I do not believe for one second that that would be the case. Reforms to the Human Rights Act would bring clarity to the currently opaque human rights standards, specifically those imported and adopted from the European convention on human rights. It is important to note that that does not mean reduced rights for people at home. Any update to the Human Rights Act should not seek to scrap people’s fundamental human rights, and any update to the Act should retain the ECHR and its original principles. However, we must ensure that the Human Rights Act and its interpretations are not used to undermine the desired will of the public or that of our democratically elected Parliament.
Does the hon. Member see any role for the protection of minority rights under the Human Rights Act and the ECHR?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention. If she will wait a few moments, I will cover that. Of course, all aspects of human rights should be covered within our provisions and protections, but there should be a balance between protecting those rights and allowing the Government to ensure that national security issues are protected at the same time.
The British people rightly believe that they should be subject to British law, made by British lawmakers for whom they have voted and by British judges. This Government were elected in 2019 on a manifesto that promised to update the Human Rights Act to ensure a proper balance among the rights of individuals, our national security and effective government.
One of the aims of the legislation is to prevent trivial human rights claims wasting judges’ time and taxpayer money. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have not yet evidenced that that is enough of a widespread issue to risk watering down the rights of citizens across the UK for nominal financial savings?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government are actively considering that. To be entirely honest, I wish the Government had moved ahead on the issue at different points over the past 12 months, but we have had consultations and things that rightly need to be considered in the round. Today we have a new Prime Minister. It will be up to him and his team to set out the new direction forward. I am sure those comments will be reported back to the Department by the Minister. The overreaching ECHR is tipping the balance away from national security and effective border controls in favour of serious criminals and terrorists who are abusing the legislation to avoid deportation. Various ECHR articles have been expanded beyond their original intention. What most frustrates me and the residents of Blackpool is the expansion of article 8 on the right to respect for private and family life, which serious criminals are using to make mockery of our broken asylum system.
In 2020, the Strasbourg court made the controversial decision to allow a Nigerian national who was sentenced to four years in prison for drug offences and had a conviction for battery to remain in the UK on health grounds. That has set the dangerous precedent that if the state wishes to deport an individual, it must be able to show that, when compared with the NHS, the healthcare to which the individual would be entitled in their own country would not significantly impact on their life chances. That is obviously an unrealistically high bar to meet.
In a second case, another convicted drug dealer used article 8 on the right to family life despite assaulting his partner and making no child maintenance contributions whatsoever—what complete and utter irony! The absurd list goes on and on. More than 70% of successful deportation appeals are now based solely on article 8.
I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I wonder whether the 230,000 who have signed the petition would think that they were listening to the right debate. I thought he said that he wishes to remain in the ambit of the European convention on human rights, and therefore of the Court—I think that that is Government policy as of last week—but he now seems to be arguing against that. Where exactly does he stand?
I am far from a legal expert, but there is a middle way between protecting people’s fundamental human rights and continuing to enshrine the ECHR in British law, and ensuring that the Government have wiggle room so that serious foreign national offenders can be deported and our asylum system is not overtly abused. Of course, that is the subject of the Government’s ongoing consultation. I look forward to the Government, and far more experienced legal minds than me, finding a way through that minefield.
We cannot fix a broken asylum system until we reform the Human Rights Act. Someone who wants to claim asylum should go through the correct procedure, under which the UK has a number of safe and legal routes. However, 28,000 people illegally crossed the channel in small boats last year, and 75% of them were men between the ages of 18 and 39. Although asylum claims should be processed within six months, many claimants do not hear back within that time, and the appeals process can take many years. Frankly, the residents of my Blackpool constituency are fed up of seeing the asylum system being abused and of the time it takes to deport those who come here, which lengthens year after year.
Simplifying the system, ensuring that claimants demonstrate that they have been materially disadvantaged before they can make a claim and strengthening the emphasis on societal impacts such as criminal behaviour will help to protect our national security and save the taxpayers’ money that is spent in the courts system and on costs associated with accommodating and supporting asylum seekers who have pending applications.
The Human Rights Act received Royal Assent in 1998 and came into force in 2000. Tony Blair’s aim was to incorporate into UK law the rights contained in the ECHR, which took effect in 1953, but after such a long time, the Human Rights Act could not have foreseen the incredibly complex challenges that we face today. It is absolutely right that the Government review that Act with a focus on the modern era, while reinforcing the primacy of UK law and protecting the fundamental freedoms that we all enjoy.
I welcome the petition and I congratulate those who organised and signed it. It requests that the proposed reform of the Human Rights Act be withdrawn. However, that demand appears to have been somewhat overtaken by events, so the first question to ask is whether the petitioners’ objectives remain valid. As we know, politics moves pretty quickly, and the proposed reforms have been withdrawn. The Prime Minister ditched the plans for a new Bill of Rights on 7 September. The papers were briefed that Ministers were deeply concerned about the drafting of the Bill. It was pulled just five days before its Second Reading, soon after the Justice Secretary had himself been sacked.
At the time—precisely six weeks and five days ago—the Prime Minister told the Cabinet that her Government would reassess ways to deliver this agenda. Note that she said that she disagreed not with the objectives of the withdrawn legislation, but rather with the method of their implementation. Fast forward to last week: six weeks and two days after the Prime Minister took office, the Conservative party reassessed her ability to deliver her own agenda and unceremoniously ditched her. That leaves human rights reform up in the air.
So is the petition still valid? I think it most certainly is, because the proposed Bill was in the last Conservative manifesto, and as far as I can work out it has been in successive Conservative manifestos since 2010. Indeed, despite withdrawing the draft legislation, the present Prime Minister supported such a Bill when she was Justice Secretary. I assume that the new leader—the Prime Minister unveiled this week, and the next Leader of the Opposition—will in turn pledge to establish the legal supremacy of the UK Supreme Court so that UK courts can disregard rulings from the ECHR. Therefore, despite the Prime Minister ditching the Bill, the issues contained in the petition remain highly relevant and valid.
We can confidently assume that, despite the Conservative party and the Government disintegrating before us, the party is still intent on reforming the Human Rights Act—perhaps one of the few things that unites its different factions. Therefore, the petition’s objective that the Government must not
“make any changes to the Human Rights Act, especially ones that dilute people’s human rights in any circumstances, make the Government less accountable, or reduce people’s ability to make human rights claims”
remains highly relevant. Despite the fact that the Bill has been axed, those issues will not go away, and they therefore deserve to be debated.
We do not really acknowledge the true significance of the proposed human rights reforms. Let me give hon. Members a brief example. The contents of the last Queen’s Speech, on 10 May—it seems like ages ago—were widely described as a damp squib, reflecting a Government who had run out of ideas:
“a party without a project”,
to quote a Guardian editorial. I thought at the time that such an interpretation was slightly wrong. Simply seeing the Queen’s Speech as an incoherent, aimless collection of 38 Bills, symptomatic of an inert, drifting Government, misread what was going on. Such a misreading is important, because it suggests that there was little to see here, and therefore little obligation to contest it and provide an alternative.
Probably the most radical element of the Queen’s Speech, which will be debated tomorrow, is the Brexit freedoms Bill—an extraordinary piece of legislation entailing the wholesale dismantling of domestic law through the constitutionally outrageous use of sunset and Henry VIII clauses. I thought at the time that the Bill of Rights was almost a constitutional companion piece to that piece of legislation. Axing the Human Rights Act would dramatically reset our strategic international position and the rights and freedoms afforded to British citizens. Acknowledging the radical character of those initiatives in the last Queen’s Speech poses many challenges and opportunities for my party, in terms of what we stand for and what we would do.
The Scottish Government have been clear that they oppose this legislation and would invite Holyrood to oppose it too. That means that if the UK Government pushed ahead, they would be showing a disregard for devolution. Does the hon. Gentleman share the concerns of those living across the UK that their rights are potentially being stripped away without consent?
I will come to that when I mention different approaches to economic and social rights, which should be the cornerstone of an alternative approach to a new Bill of Rights in the UK. That goes with the grain of what is happening in Scotland, in contrast to the objectives of the present Government in Westminster. To put it charitably, the Government are a total shambles, and even compared to early September, the possibility of a Labour Government is more likely. It would be useful to find out what Labour’s approach is to reform of the HRA, for instance, whether it would seek to defend the present Act or offer its own alternative Bill of Rights.
The Conservative reform of human rights, which will reappear, cannot be discussed without acknowledging the international context in which it occurs. When set against an international backdrop of war and escalating authoritarianism, the proposed human rights reform suggests a country withdrawing from our international obligations and democratic oversight, both abroad and at home. That is not an accident. The Government have stated a wish to comply with the human rights convention, but they would also seek to mandate our judges to disregard some of its most basic principles and protections. Those include the so-called positive obligations on public bodies to investigate crime and wrongdoing. These are precisely the methods that produced remedies for the victims of the black cab rapist, John Worboys, alongside a range of other cases providing justice for victims—most famously through the Hillsborough inquiry—and a series of cases of justice for soldiers, including the case at Deepcut.
The reform would likely see more cases going to Strasbourg, not less, and would once again expand the power of the Executive, which would be more free to rule by regulation and restrict the interpretive power of the courts. When Europe and the world are crying out for international leadership and solidarity, our Government appear to be running in the opposite direction. We might assume that it is was only the likes of Russia, Poland and Hungary that cynically remained in treaties, such as the human rights convention, while corroding them from within. What I find truly extraordinary is to think that in 2023, the 75th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights—partly crafted by British lawyers—the Government planned to axe the Human Rights Act, the direct descendant of that convention, which sought to unite countries after fascism, authoritarianism and genocide.
Winston Churchill would arguably be turning in his grave. In his opening speech to the Congress of Europe in May 1948, Churchill said that the new Europe must be
“a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values. It is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.”
That statement, 75 years on, has a contemporary feel to it, as authoritarianism and fascism are once again on the march, threatening the foundations of liberal democracy.
While I am glad to see that the legislation has been withdrawn, it comes with one downside. The Government’s withdrawn attempt to deny rights to the British people, wrapped up in the almost Orwellian language of a new Bill of Rights, did offer opportunities for opponents to build a coalition around an alternative, rather than simply defend the status quo. It would be a radical new Bill of Rights that builds on the Human Rights Act rather than dismantles it, and one that might echo themes from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision of a second Bill of Rights in 1944, which informed the universal declaration of human rights.
Such an alternative Bill of Rights might include the right to work, to free education, to access to public health, to housing, to security for all and to freedom from fear. If Labour rethinks its whole approach to modern citizenship, I like to think that could be part of a radical levelling-up agenda. It would be a new democratic and economic covenant between the state and its citizens, one that is aligned with Administrations in Scotland and Wales, which are also seeking to build such an agenda. It would not only honour the Good Friday agreement’s commitment to the human rights convention, but would be in keeping with the long-term quest for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. That offers a different type of radicalism to that of the Queen’s Speech, and the ditched attempts to attack our human rights, alongside the desire to consolidate power within the Executive and strip away access to justice.
In conclusion, my basic point is a simple one: the last Queen’s Speech was no damp squib. Reform of the Human Rights Act is a big deal that should be challenged. Thinking that there is little to see here concedes too much ground, and reinforces the political groupthink that underplays the radical character of this Government and their potential to isolate us, diminish our international standings, consolidate long-term economic weaknesses and enduring patterns of inequality, and hand over even greater powers to the Executive. There is plenty to see here. It deserves a radical alternative. The Human Rights Act, as it currently exists, protects all of us; we lose it at our peril. It is essential that we are allowed to challenge public authorities when they get it wrong. The Human Rights Act has changed many lives for the better. It must be protected and built on, and not subject to reforms that reduce its scope and limit what people can rely on it for. This debate will endure. That is why the petition before us retains its significance and should be warmly welcomed.
I do not wish to impose a time limit at the moment, but I will call the SNP spokesperson at around 7 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and to have the opportunity to debate this important petition.
I will start from the basic principle that the Government and the Conservative party have always been firmly committed to our adherence to the European convention on human rights. For some of us, that is absolutely non-negotiable and fundamental, and rightly so because historically it has been a largely British-driven instrument. British common law traditions have actually greatly developed both the convention itself and the development of the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence.
It is worth bearing in mind that, as the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) alluded to, one of the principal authors of the European convention on human rights, the late Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, later Lord Kilmuir, was, at the time, a Conservative Member of Parliament, had been a prosecutor in the Nuremburg trials and later served as a Conservative Lord Chancellor. Conservative respect for human rights is actually very deep-rooted and, for many years, the UK was a diligent member of the convention, without having the Human Rights Act in domestic legislation. It was sensible to have an Act that enabled the remedies available under the convention to be sought in the domestic courts, rather than having to go directly to Strasbourg. That was the purpose of the Human Rights Act when it was introduced. It is not essential in terms of our commitment to human rights to have a statute in domestic law, but it is certainly convenient and greatly helps many British citizens in the assertion of their convention rights. I think it is right that we keep it, but does that mean it should not be reformed? Of course not. Any legislation has space for reform and improvement and that was the commitment in the 2019 Conservative party manifesto, the manifesto on which this Government were elected. I am happy to support that.
It was consistent with that manifesto commitment that the then Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), commissioned an independent review of the operation of the Act with a view to modernising and updating it. That was the manifesto commitment—no less, but also no more. In consequence, Sir Peter Gross KC, a distinguished former Lord Justice of Appeal, headed up an independent review panel, which took extensive evidence—over 180 submissions plus roadshows around the whole UK—and produced a detailed report. Subsequently, Sir Peter gave compelling evidence in support of his report to the Justice Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and to, I think, the Constitution Committee of the other place.
If there is to be reform, I suggest that Sir Peter’s balanced report is the appropriate template. It touches upon a number of practical changes that could be made. For example, the ambiguity that his panel concluded exists around the hierarchy of rights—the prioritisation of rights—under section 2 of the current Act. Strengthening the means of dealing with the margin of appreciation—that is the way in which there is a degree of flexibility—is consistent with the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, each member state of the convention has some flexibility in the way it interprets the rights and the enforcement of judgments and decisions according to their own domestic legal traditions. Developing the concept of judicial dialogue was started again and brought to its current form by Lord Clarke when he was Lord Chancellor, and then developed in the Brighton declaration and subsequently by the Copenhagen declaration. That is a constructive means of developing jurisprudence within the member states. Further recommendations include tackling one or two other thorny practical issues around remedial orders and in relation to extraterritoriality, which is a real issue. Sir Peter posits various alternative ways, but, ultimately, these Houses, as a legislature, would have to decide upon them. Those would be practical improvements and reforms.
I was surprised when, after Sir Peter delivered the report, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) produced a consultation document that went rather beyond the party’s manifesto and then introduced a Bill of Rights that, again, went rather beyond the manifesto and Sir Peter’s panel’s recommendations. Without reciting the history, in September, as has been observed, the Lord Chancellor paused the passage of that legislation and wrote to the Justice Committee and other relevant Committees, notifying them that that was the position. The Lord Chancellor was right to do so. The Bill of Rights, which has had no more than its First Reading, went beyond the manifesto commitment; it also went beyond the sensible changes that I, as a Conservative, want to see, which would be consistent with the evidence that was available to Government. It would also needlessly undermine some of the practical workings of the convention rights for UK citizens.
That is not to say that there are not circumstances where either judgments in the Strasbourg Court or the application of convention rights by the domestic courts do not cause controversy or political sensitivity, if I can put it that way. However, for context, it is worth remembering that the number of instances in which the UK is in breach of its convention obligations is absolutely trivial. I was struck by that fact when I was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, but also when looking at the evidence we have had most recently. The UK actually has one of the best records of compliance with our ECHR obligations of any of the member states.
The figures in the “Report to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the Government’s response to human rights judgments 2020–2021” show that the number of adverse judgments has declined from 19 in 2011 to 4 in 2020. There has been a consistent downward trend. Similarly, the number of cases brought against the United Kingdom ongoing before the courts has declined from 2,500 odd in 2013 to 124. It is worth bearing in mind that many of those cases are now historic. They related either to certain elements of retention of evidence in terrorism cases that have now been dealt with or to the prisoner voting issue, in particular—of course, a minor amendment to the legislation resolved that issue and brought us into compliance with the convention. The outstanding issues, apart from those that hit the headlines around immigration and asylum and one or two other matters, are actually very minor.
When we look to change an important piece of legislation and at the strength of our commitment to our international obligation under the convention, it is worth bearing in mind that the issues are very limited and discrete. I therefore hope that we will leave the passage of the Bill paused and that the Government will reflect that, of all the issues confronting the Ministry of Justice, there may be other, rather more pressing issues that we should be dealing with. If we do move forward with reform, to which I would have no objection, I hope that we use the evidence-based approach that Sir Peter Gross and his panel set up for us. That, I argue, is the responsible and sensible way forward, and one that completely meets our manifesto commitments.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). I am in a very significant measure of agreement with him, particularly about the need for evidence-based policy making.
I rise to speak as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I remind Members that it is a Joint Committee of both the Commons and the Lords, which takes half its members from each House. It is, of course, a cross-party Committee. As the Committee responsible for scrutinising the Government’s human rights record, we have conducted two inquiries considering plans to reform the Human Rights Act. During our inquiries, we heard evidence from experts with a diverse range of views and from people who have benefited from using the Human Rights Act. Having considered all that evidence, we remain of the view, which we have expressed in a number of previous reports, that the Human Rights Act is functioning as intended and enables human rights to be enforced effectively in the United Kingdom, with little need for recourse to the European Court of Human Rights. For that reason, based on the evidence we have heard and the information we have considered, we believe that the Government have failed to make the case for repealing and replacing the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights.
We were pleased to have confirmation from the current Lord Chancellor that the Government were looking again at the Bill of Rights Bill and that its progress would be paused while they conducted a thorough review of the Bill. We were pleased to hear that, unlike before, he intends to look at the evidence base, including the independent Human Rights Act review. We were concerned by the Government’s lack of engagement with experts, Parliament and the public over the Bill of Rights Bill. It followed the independent Human Rights Act review, as we have heard, significant parliamentary engagement and inquiries, and a public consultation exercise, which elicited over 12,000 responses. That is the sort of extensive engagement we should be having before we embark on reform, but engagement has to be genuine and have meaning and purpose, and those who engage should be listened to.
The Bill of Rights simply does not reflect what the Government heard from Parliament’s Committees, their own commissioned independent review or their consultation exercise. The Government’s own consultation analysis shows that many responders were in favour of maintaining the status quo and the Human Rights Act, and believed that the changes proposed were unnecessary. Despite that lack of support, the Government decided to pursue a reform, in which they went to the length of repealing and replacing the Act altogether.
The Government’s consultation analysis provided scant to no reasoning to explain why they decided to disregard the views of a significant number of consultees. In the Joint Committee’s opinion, that calls into question the integrity of the whole consultation process preceding the Bill of Rights. We concluded that, given the overwhelming lack of support for these radical reforms, repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a Bill of Rights was neither democratic nor necessary. We were particularly worried about the international implications of repealing the Human Rights Act. Our primary worry was that removing the Act would weaken protections for people living in the United Kingdom, but we were also worried about how it would be perceived internationally.
When we visited the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg earlier this year, we highlighted our concerns. It was emphasised to us that the Human Rights Act is viewed internationally as the gold standard and a model example of how human rights can be effectively embodied into domestic law and practice. It was impressed on us by our interlocuters that any weakening of the mechanisms in the Act could damage the United Kingdom’s reputation internationally and weaken the UK Government’s position when seeking to ensure that other states uphold their human rights obligations. Importantly, we were left in no doubt by those we spoke to that the United Kingdom’s status as a leading member of the Council of Europe and one of the founders of the ECHR means that any reforms to the Act that suggest that we are wavering in our commitment to the convention’s protections could be a green light for other less committed nations to weaken their own human rights protections.
Other hon. Members have spoken about the incredibly positive impact that the Human Rights Act has had on human rights in the United Kingdom, and the Joint Committee has highlighted that in a number of its reports. It has highlighted that it has made it far easier for individuals to enforce their rights, because they can do so in their domestic court, and that is much cheaper and easier. Before the passing of the Human Rights Act, an individual had to take their case directly to the Court in Strasbourg. That process was subject to long delays, by which I mean many years, and on average cost applicants £30,000. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst indicated, another benefit of the Human Rights Act is that it has led to a significant decrease in the number of cases brought against the UK before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, because we resolve our own human rights problems at home, in the domestic courts of our jurisdiction. The hon. Member gave some statistics about that.
Contrary to what people sometimes think, having a Human Rights Act, and incorporating the ECHR into the domestic law of the United Kingdom, has also enabled courts—in my jurisdiction of Scotland and in those of England and Wales, and of Northern Ireland—to influence the development of European Court of Human Rights case law. We heard that there is a strong dialogue between the UK Supreme Court and the Court in Strasbourg; they both influence each other’s jurisprudence, and that often works to the benefit of the United Kingdom.
Another important thing that the Human Rights Act has done is embed a human rights culture in public authorities. We heard from a number of witnesses—including an NHS trust, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the British Association of Social Workers—that the Human Rights Act has placed human rights at the centre of decision making in public authorities, and that the legal framework assisted them in making complex decisions.
We also heard that the Human Rights Act has been central to the devolution of justice and policing in Northern Ireland, and of course we know that it is embedded in the Good Friday agreement. It also plays a very important role in the constitutional underpinning of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd. As other hon. Members indicated, in my own jurisdiction of Scotland, the Scottish Parliament has gone beyond the Human Rights Act to embed, for example, the UN convention on the rights of the child. The Joint Committee was very clear that we do not believe that the Human Rights Act should be reformed without the consent of the devolved legislatures, because it is so important to them.
I want to be clear: the Joint Committee on Human Rights is not saying that there should not be any amendments to the Human Rights Act, but we would like human rights protections to be strengthened rather than weakened. For example, we want the right to protest—a very important aspect of the right to freedom of expression—to be given greater protection in the Bill of Rights Bill, and we want the right to an effective remedy, as protected by article 13 of the ECHR, embedded. We also want the Government seriously to consider incorporating other international human rights treaties, such as the UN convention that I just mentioned and the refugee convention. That should include the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, in terms similar to those of article 14 of the universal declaration of human rights.
We are pleased that the current Lord Chancellor has paused the process. We had a very positive letter from him last week. We are looking forward to engaging with him, and we are delighted that the Government will go back and look at the independent review in a way that they did not before. The Committee will continue to engage with the Government, but we emphasise that we believe in evidence-based policy making. It is our view that so far we have seen no evidence to justify the argument that significant changes to the Human Rights Act are either necessary or desirable.
It is a pleasure to be serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and a real pleasure to follow the eminent Chairs of two Select Committees: the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Justice Committee. With perhaps difference nuances, they both said very much the same thing, and so I will not repeat it for a third time: if there is a priority in legislation, reform of the Human Rights Act is not it. That is essentially what the terms of the petition say.
Despite that, when he was Lord Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) set up the Gross review. That was a substantial piece of work and its recommendations were proportionate, so if changes are to be made, we should perhaps be guided rather more by that than by the subsequent consultation, which as far as I can see paid no regard whatever to the Gross report. In fact, it appeared to be based rather more on a shorter piece of work, the 2009 book, “The Assault on Liberty”. The right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) read his own book again—something that I have tried and failed to do on several occasions—rather than looking at the report that his Department commissioned.
It is a shame, and I would probably err on the side of not reforming at all, because the Human Rights Act is a piece of legislation that we should be proud of. It is a practical as well as principled part of constitutional law, and it has worked very well. However, all this did not start in the last year or two, but probably over a decade ago, with the use of legislation aiming to repeal or reform the Human Rights Act as part of the culture wars agenda and throwing red meat to various members of the governing party. It is in the same bracket now as tomorrow’s Bill on retained EU law, flights to Rwanda and the public order legislation to curtail freedom of speech that we had last week. It is a real shame that we are passing legislation of that kind, as is the motivation for passing it.
All this also means that we get confused about the constitutional impact. For example—given that both Members are present—at Justice questions last week, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) asked the Minister replying to today’s debate:
“It is becoming pretty clear that we cannot get a grip on the small boats crisis and deliver significant reform of our asylum system without reforming the Human Rights Act. What is the Government’s plan?”
The Minister’s response was:
“we are committed to the European convention on human rights and to the UN refugee convention. We believe that our proposals are within the law and that no court has said otherwise.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2022; Vol. 720, c. 525.]
They cannot really have it both ways: either the existing law is sufficient to do what the Government are doing or it needs to be changed.
I feel that, on many occasions, what is put forward and argued results from the outcomes of individual cases that individual MPs do not like, or from their own prejudices or what they perceive to be the views of their constituents, but which might in fact not be. That is a very poor way to legislate, so I was pleased to see that, with the demise of the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton, the Bill of Rights Bill—which was very much his individual project, in a way that is probably quite unhealthy—also saw its demise. Indeed, it was described in rather brutal terms, not by his successor but by Downing Street, as “a complete mess”. That is quite a harsh term for a Government to use about one of their own flagship pieces of legislation, so probably the best thing that could happen to that Bill now is to be quietly tucked away in a cupboard, so that it becomes just a bit of constitutional history and never sees the light of day.
I do not know, but certainly my impression from Justice questions last week—in which three times the Secretary of State or the Minister said very clearly that the Government would wish to stay within the ambit of the European convention and the European Court—is that there seems to be no urgency at all about replacing the current legislation. That implies that we can perhaps move on and quietly forget this whole rather sorry episode. I notice that the Library page relating to today’s debate says of the Bill that “its fate is…unclear”. Perhaps it should remain unclear and we can all move on to more important things.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
The debate may now continue until 7.53 pm. I call Andy Slaughter.
Thank you, Ms Fovargue. That welcome respite from my speech gives me a hint not to go on too long.
Before we were interrupted by the bell, I was saying that reforming human rights legislation should not be a priority for the Government. Having had time to study his brief, the Minister knows—perhaps he will even still be in post tomorrow; who knows?—that the criminal and civil courts face some of their worst backlogs. There is a real crisis of confidence in the justice system. There is also real crisis in accessing justice, and particularly in legal aid, as the Government concede to some extent in the reviews they have undertaken—or, in the case of the civil legal aid review, are undertaking. There is more than enough for the Minister and his colleagues to do without looking for work and interfering with legislation that is working well.
In a way, the Government are in a favourable position. They have an excuse to move on and quietly forget the bee in the bonnet of the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton. If they wish to follow the lead of the Chair of the Justice Committee and look at the matter again, they have a really fine report by Sir Peter Gross and his colleagues. They do not really need to go any further than that. I will not go through this in depth—I do not see any point in doing so until we know what the Government are bringing forward—but it made me weep to see the way that the Human Rights Act was being misconstrued, whether in relation to parliamentary sovereignty or in relation to the margin of appreciation. The proposed reforms, particularly to sections 2 and 3 of the Act, really distorted both the purpose and the effect of the Act.
Constitutional legislation is a very difficult thing to get right, but the Act was thought to be a success, and it effectively made the conduct of justice easy, because it brought human rights down to domestic level. It gave direct access to the UK courts, and it meant that justice was obtainable at lower cost, more speedily and in a more relevant way. The Government have said they will not take us out of the European convention on human rights, and that we will still be subject to the judgments of the European Court, so the only change will be that it the process will be much more protracted. How can that be in the interests of justice, or the interests of the citizen?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) said, this is not about lawyers or high-falutin’ principles; it is about the ability of citizens to challenge the state and institutions on important areas of law, and regarding decisions that fundamentally affect their everyday lives, when they get things wrong. What is obnoxious about that? That is the role that the Human Rights Act performed; that is the role it continues to perform, with or without the sort of amendments that we have talked about today. To repeal it, as an act of political bravado, is simply irresponsible and I urge the Minister away from that course.
I like to think that we will hear a little bit more from the Minister. I am not hopeful because the Secretary of State has already said that he will take his time, but I hope that we will hear at least a little bit about the direction of travel and where the Government think we should be going on this issue. That would be a helpful outcome of this debate. The almost 250,000 people who have urged caution on him would be pleased to hear that that message is being heeded in the Ministry of Justice.
It is a pleasure, Ms Fovargue, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) for presenting the petition. I am very much in favour of retaining the Human Rights Act as it is. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said that there might be a need to do some tweaking or make some changes. I am not against that, provided we have a chance to discuss it and see what the changes are. However, I am very much of the opinion that the Human Rights Act should be retained as it is.
I start by thanking all the 230,000 people who signed the online petition to stop reform of the Human Rights Act. That is almost a quarter of a million people who voiced their objection to human rights being diluted in any circumstance, and I believe that they reflect the views of possibly millions more people. Certainly, people to whom I speak in my constituency want things left as they are. All these people oppose moves to make the Government less accountable, and support increasing the ability of people in need to make human rights claims; I, too, think there is a need to have that opportunity in the law.
To give an idea of just how many people 230,000 are, that is twice the population of even the largest constituency in the UK, and it is about one in eight voters in Northern Ireland, which has a population of 2 million people. This is not a fringe issue; it is a massive issue. The correspondence that I receive on it tells me that people are deeply concerned about it.
In fact, as a general rule, people want more human rights safeguards in place, not fewer. A third of the population of the United Kingdom believes that the UK Government are not doing enough to promote human rights abroad. I am very pleased to see the Minister in his place, and I will make some comments about human rights abroad. As everyone knows, I chair the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, and I am a deep and strong believer that when it comes to making trade deals with any country in the world, the key to that process must be regard for human rights, including people’s liberty to serve and worship their god as they wish. I know that the Government are committed to that; I understand that. However, I still want to put that on the record.
As I say, a third of people in the UK believe that the UK is not doing enough to promote human rights abroad; I think that the Government are quite active, but people tell me otherwise. Almost three quarters of the British public agree that the UK should take into consideration a country’s human rights standards when negotiating or signing a deal with it. More than half of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland agrees that the amount of foreign aid given to a country should be tied to its performance against human rights standards; I fully support that condition. When I ask questions of Ministers with responsibility for different parts of the world about that, I am encouraged by what they say happens in that regard.
If this Government—my Government—are to reform human rights, they should make the standards higher. Let us do human rights better, rather than water them down. If that is what the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West is saying—I think it is—I agree that we should do that, rather than make the legislation more dependent on the Government’s economic and trade interests.
Human Rights Watch said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the repeal of the Human Rights Act would
“weaken human rights protections…and send a negative signal globally about the value of international human rights standards and the worth the UK government attaches to them.”
I am confident that the Minister does not want that to be the opinion of those who look at the United Kingdom from outside. I think many would agree that that is a scathing assessment of the impact that any repeal would have.
Globally, human rights have never been under greater threat. We know about all the things that are happening in Putin’s war in Ukraine. Every one of us is dismayed, disgusted and angered by it, and our Government and our Ministers have taken strong action. We all watched the protests across the villages, towns and cities of Iran. Ladies were often at the fore in those protests; they are the ones feeling the brunt of it. More than 400 people have been killed—most of them women and children—and almost 20,000 have been arrested, all looking for freedom, liberty and human rights. We support that. Then there is China’s treatment of the Hongkongers, not just in Hong Kong but in Manchester, as we witnessed the week before last. We want human rights observed in this country as well as in Hong Kong. The bombings of schools in Afghanistan are human rights abuses. It is really quite annoying. Those are things that have made the headlines in just the past month. If we are to continue to be a global champion of human rights, we cannot let the message be lost. What we do at home is so important.
Hon. Members have made fantastic contributions, and I endorse all of them. Many have a greater knowledge than I do. In my capacity as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, I am frequently in dialogue with civil society organisations and Government representatives from countries where freedom of religion or belief is a major concern. When I talk to all those groups from across the world, it is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s leading influence in the defence of human rights that makes bilateral accountability possible. That is vital. I and many others are concerned that replacing the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights would send to those countries the message that the UK does not practise what it preaches. That is the interpretation they will make. I am sure that the Minister will respond positively and lay that to bed. We must see human rights as an absolute good in themselves, and not as a means to an end. Such transparently selfish interests would inevitably undermine attempts to promote human rights abroad, and would do far more harm than good.
The Human Rights Act should be left as it is. There are many in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and many more across this great world, whom we have a duty to protect. We need the Human Rights Act, not a Bill of Rights, but if we change the Act, we should make it better. I cannot and will not agree to the dilution of the current provisions.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I commend the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) for moving the motion.
We have had a very good debate. It is clear that this issue is close to the hearts of many of our constituents across the four nations. We heard from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who is an authority on these matters. It is always worth noting all she has to say as the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); we are often on opposing sides in debates and Divisions in this place, but I fully agree with everything he has said today. I thank the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for their excellent contributions. Of course, I also thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for his interrupted contribution; I am glad to say that none of the points he was making was diluted—political bravado, indeed. I place on record my thanks to the public who have partaken in their democratic right and signed the e-petition, including 326 from my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on what can only be described as an unashamed attempted power grab by the Government, in the form of their proposed reform to the Human Rights Act. There is absolutely no justification for such reform at this time, other than this Government creating for themselves the potential to be above the law. Such is the UK Government’s desire to substantially harden an already hard Brexit that they are literally ripping out the final piece of European-related legislation that we have. It is not a piece of legislation that could, nor should, be changed lightly, if at all.
The Human Right Act aims to protect every individual across our society. We lose that at our peril. It is an essential law that has allowed us to challenge public authorities when they get things wrong. It has helped to secure justice on issues from the right to life to the right of freedom of speech. The Human Rights Act has changed many lives for the better; it must be protected and not subject to reform that reduces its scope or limits when people can rely on it. The reform is a threat to how and when we can challenge those in power; it will strip some people’s rights away and require people to have permission from a judge before they can take a state to court. The UK Government must respect the rule of law. Their changes will mean that future UK Governments, of all political leanings, will be beyond the reach of public accountability. Where is the democracy in that?
The utter contempt of the UK Tory Government for the upholding of human rights has been blatant; we see it in their attempts to send refugees, some of the most vulnerable people in our society, to Rwanda. Since that scheme was invented, public pressure and the protections in our legal system have meant that not one refugee has been sent on a plane. Ironically enough, we are on our third Home Secretary since then. I suppose that is not that surprising; we are also on our fourth Chancellor and third Prime Minister in that short space of time. The Government should focus on far more important things than tinkering with human rights legislation.
It was the words of that former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman), that I found most chilling—I alerted her to the fact that I would mention her. It was her “dream” to see planes of refugees sent to Rwanda. Of all the dreams to have! Surely the outcry at that statement proves that the Conservative party’s interpretation of human rights protections is starkly different from that of the wider public and Members from across this Chamber.
One of the most concerning elements of reform for my constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill is the implication for the integrity of the devolutionary settlement. We have heard from Members about the encroachments on that. The Scottish Government, along with other devolved Governments, have been abundantly clear that they do not support any such reforms, which would erode rights that years of devolution have achieved. A report published in July 2021 by the Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded,
“The Government should not pursue reform of the HRA without the consent of the Scottish Parliament”.
Well, that consent has not been given.
In their Bill of Rights, the Tories say they want to
“strengthen this country’s proud tradition of freedom, curtail abuses of the human rights system and reinforce the democratic prerogatives of elected Members in this House over the legislative process in respect of the expansion of human rights.”—[Official Report, 14 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 913.]
It takes some serious neck from this Government to portray themselves as coming to the defence of judges, when they have been at constant war with them over the judgments they have given that the Government did not like. Tory proposals to uphold citizens’ rights simply do not equate with the reality of legislation passed under this UK Government, such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, the Elections Act 2022 and the Public Order Bill, all of which impede the rights of our citizens.
The UK Government must stop all attempts to rewrite the constitution and devolved settlements. Such practices cannot continue, and Scotland does not accept that manner of working. I implore the UK Government to stop all attempts to reform the Human Rights Act, and I fully support the aims of the petitioners.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. The strength of feeling on the issue has been demonstrated not only by the nearly 250,000 people who signed the petition, but by the speeches we have heard today. My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) said that the Human Rights Act provides justice for victims, including soldiers, women facing violence and victims of Hillsborough. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said that replacing the Human Rights Act was completely the wrong priority for the justice system, and spoke about his hope that that will now be abandoned with the demise of the previous Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab). The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) shared his commitment to the Human Rights Act, and noted the very large number of people who signed the petition and the strength of feeling on the issue.
The case has been made very strongly for why the Human Rights Act is such an important piece of legislation, and why it should not under any circumstances be scrapped and replaced with the Government’s Bill of Rights Bill. It is a relief that the Government did not bring forward the Bill for Second Reading last month. I hope that the Minister will confirm that it will not come back, and that the Government will drop their attempt to scrap the Human Rights Act. Make no mistake: rather than a so-called Bill of Rights, it is a rights-removal Bill, which is designed to dilute the rule of law and weaken the rights of British citizens.
The Human Rights Act was brought in by a Labour Government, with a simple but profound aim: to bring rights home, ensure human rights protections are accessible, and provide a mechanism to hold the Executive to account. For the last 25 years, the Act has met that aim. Indeed, it is recognised around the world, and has been integral to the Union of our nations. As has been said, the Scottish Government consistently made clear their support for the Act in their response to the Government’s Bill of Rights Bill consultation. The Welsh Government have recorded their opposition to any proposal to replace the Human Rights Act. Perhaps most significantly of all, the Act has played a large role in peace in Northern Ireland, because the full incorporation of the European convention in domestic law was a key aspect of the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
Members across the House would have grave concerns about legislation that could undermine the Union. We have talked today about the importance of evidence. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) called for any review to be evidence-led, and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said that the Joint Committee on Human Rights completed two cross-party reports that concluded that the Human Rights Act is working well and does not need to be repealed or replaced. That was also the conclusion of the independent expert review, and the view of well over 250 charities, trade unions and human rights organisations that joined together to call for the protection of the Act. Organisations working with vulnerable people—ranging from the charity ACTION:FGM to Mind, the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project, the Down’s Syndrome Association and Southall Black Sisters—have also said that the Act is a proportionate and well-drafted protection of our fundamental liberties. The evidence that the Human Rights Act is working is overwhelming.
Far from the mythical rights culture that the Conservatives point the finger at, the Human Rights Act has time and again been the course of redress for those failed by the state. Take Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement. After she reported being raped by two Royal Military Police officers, she suffered bullying, ostracism and overwork. In the end, she took her own life. Using the positive obligations under article 2—the right to life—Anne-Marie’s family secured a fresh inquest into her death and a new rape investigation.
The results of those investigations led to improvements in the military justice system that have helped to support servicepeople who have been victims of rape and sexual assault in the military. It also led to the formation of the service complaints ombudsman, an independent body that investigates complaints by service personnel. The positive obligations under article 2 also ensure that bereaved families of the Manchester Arena attack in 2017 and the Fishmongers’ Hall attack in 2019 received full investigations, which examined whether the attacks could have been prevented. The lessons learned were placed on counter-terror operatives to better protect people in the future.
The Human Rights Act is an essential tool for upholding women’s rights to live free from violence through positive obligations under the Act, but the Conservatives’ rights removal Bill would remove them, thereby limiting women’s ability to challenge the state’s failures to protect them. A prime example of positive obligations under the Human Rights Act in protecting women is the case of black cab rapist John Worboys, who my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham also spoke about. Despite two of his earliest victims reporting their experiences to the police, systematic failures to properly investigate or take those reports seriously meant that he was not charged, and was free to continue attacking women for many years. Thanks to the Human Rights Act, those victims were able to take the police to court and hold them responsible.
More recently, the High Court judgment regarding the policing of the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard saw the Act play a crucial role when a court ruled that the Met had failed to understand the law when it banned women for holding a vigil for Sarah. Thanks to the Human Rights Act, the organisers were able to seek redress. It is unconscionable that the Government are pursuing an agenda that will attack those basic rights, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that the legislation will not come back.
Rather than looking to the genuine positives of the Human Rights Act, in the proposed legislation the Government attempted to dismiss it as a law misused and exploited by criminals and extremists. The truth is that the Act offers essential daily protections for citizens, which in so many cases we take for granted. There is no justifiable reason for the Government to try to curb those obligations on the state to protect our human rights. Doing so simply seeks to absolve the state of responsibility. Unless the Minister is willing to accept the importance of the Human Rights Act, and commit to dropping the Government’s Bill of Rights, I am afraid that it adds to the Government’s scoresheet of not being on the side of victims, not being serious about tackling violence against women and girls, and not being a guardian of the rule of law.
Labour, on the other hand, believes in a country that is accountable and has proper checks and balances, where institutions seek to protect the rights of the people they serve, rather than cover up and obfuscate when things go wrong. That is what we aspire to, and it is why a Labour Government would defend the Human Rights Act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I thank the hon. Members for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), and my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) for their contributions.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) for introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee, and I thank the creator of the petition, who I understand is in the Public Gallery, for his engagement with Parliament. I hope he will agree that we have had a very constructive debate. There may be slight differences of opinion, but the debate has been positive. I also thank the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves). I like the people of Lewisham West; when I stood there in 2005, I found out that I liked them rather more than they liked me, but that is a separate issue. She represents a wonderful constituency, and I thank her for her contribution.
I am genuinely grateful that the debate gives me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on this issue. The UK has a long and proud history of recognising and standing up for the fundamental human rights of individuals. Robust protection of those rights, such as freedom of thought and of expression, is a vital cornerstone of our modern democracy. In recognition of that, the Government pledged in our manifesto to review and update the Human Rights Act, which was created in 1998 to give further effect in UK law to the rights set out in the European convention on human rights.
Almost a quarter of a century has passed since that Act came into force. It has occupied an important position in the UK’s human rights framework, but after over 20 years, it is entirely right that we should look at it again and seek to update it, not with the intention of reducing protection of our rights and freedoms, but to make sure that this country’s human rights framework continues to be the best that it can be, meets the needs of the society that it serves, and remains a leading example on the international stage. We want to ensure that the Act strikes the proper balance between the rights of individuals on the one hand, and our vital national security and effective government on the other.
The Government established the independent Human Rights Act review in December 2020 to examine the framework of the Act, how it operates in practice, and whether any change is required. Chaired by the former Court of Appeal judge Sir Peter Gross, who my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned, the review panel was tasked with considering the relationship between domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and the Act’s impact on the relationship between the judiciary, the Executive and the legislature. The Government are most grateful to Sir Peter and his panel for their valuable report, which was published in December 2021.
Following the report, the Government commenced work on a Bill of Rights. Their reform programme not only took the report into account but considered wider issues relating to our domestic framework, including the need to strike a balance between individual rights and the wider public interest, and to give public authorities the confidence to carry out their duties. As Members might expect, when a new Government were formed, the Bill’s progress through Parliament was paused in the light of a wider review of policy priorities. We are taking this opportunity to closely consider our approach to updating the Act, and to ensure that the provisions that we put forward will deliver the Government’s objectives as effectively as possible.
Let me be clear that any reform to the Act will be in full compliance with the European convention on human rights, and with the UK’s other international obligations, including the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the Northern Ireland protocol, and our trade and co-operation agreement with the European Union. More broadly, we will maintain our leading role in the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law internationally. The UK’s record at the European Court of Human Rights demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that human rights are protected. The UK’s human rights record is strong. Of all the state parties to the European convention on human rights, the UK has the fewest applications to the court per million inhabitants. The figures that I have are slightly different from those given by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, but the point remains the same: at the end of 2021, applications against the UK made up only 0.17% of the Court’s case load, and very few of the Court’s final judgments find a violation by the UK; two did in 2020, and five in 2021.
We continue to be a strong supporter of the work carried out by the United Nations treaty bodies to uphold the broader human rights system. The UK remains a strong advocate of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and we have a deep commitment to the success of its universal periodic review. We believe that it is an important mechanism of universal and constructive peer review. It allows the sharing of best practice and promotes the continual improvement of human rights on the ground, and is therefore a process we will continue to engage with.
The UK has been praised in the UN’s previous universal periodic review dialogues for our leadership on certain recommendations and our commitment to the review process. We have recently published our state report for our fourth universal periodic review, the dialogue of which is scheduled for November 2022. This petition rightly points out that the Human Rights Act provides important protection. While I could not disagree with that sentiment, it does not preclude us from looking carefully at how the Act could be improved.
The Minister is making a good case for “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. He has used the phrase “review and update” himself, so I assume we will have no more of “repeal” and “replace”, which is what it says in clause 1 of the paused Bill. He has rightly said that we are both a contributor to international human rights and are less criticised than many other countries in that respect. Are those not all arguments for not needing a comprehensive review? Twenty years is not a long time. Magna Carta has been around for about 800 years—we are not talking about repealing that.
The Conservative party manifesto at the last general election made it clear that we wanted to review and update the Human Rights Act. We would still remain compliant with the European convention on human rights, whatever changes are made. It is purely to review and update the Act. The manifesto does not say that we wish to repeal and scrap the Human Rights Act.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. He makes reference to manifesto pledges and his commitment to deliver on them. I wonder why it is only his Government who are allowed to deliver on their manifesto pledges. The Scottish Government have a clear manifesto pledge to deliver an independence referendum. Self-determination comes under human rights, and I wonder why he would like to deny that to the people of Scotland.
That might take us down a rabbit hole that you, Ms Fovargue, might regard as being out of order. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Human Rights Act is not a devolved matter; it is retained by the UK Parliament to legislate on. Updating the Act to ensure that it serves its intended purpose and keeps up with the needs of a changing society is a crucial step towards doing just that, and the work to review how best to achieve that continues. I look forward to updating the House on that work in future. I reassure all hon. Members present that protecting the rights and freedoms currently enjoyed in this country will remain of the utmost importance throughout this process.
I thank you, Ms Fovargue, and all those hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. We have heard thoughtful contributions from all who have spoken, including the hon. Members for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), as well as all Front-Bench Members.
It is a particularly opportune time for this debate, with the incoming new Prime Minister. Tomorrow, the Department will establish a way forward, and I am sure that the Minister will feed back all the shades of different opinions from today’s debate. We have alluded to our manifesto commitment to review and update the Act, and I am reassured by the Minister’s comments that that is still on track. Of course, we are now in the second half of this Parliament, so the sooner that comes forward, the better. Along with Back-Bench colleagues, I look forward to seeing what the Government produce and how they will safeguard people’s rights, while allowing us to reform our immigration system and ensure that those who are a threat to national security can be deported. It is a difficult circle to square, but I have every faith that the Minister and his team can achieve it. Thank you, Ms Fovargue; I am happy to close the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 607712, relating to human rights legislation reform.