Skip to main content

European Convention on Human Rights

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

5. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of withdrawal from the European convention on human rights on human rights in the UK. (903703)

8. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of withdrawal from the European convention on human rights on human rights in the UK. (903706)

Our Bill of Rights will envisage us remaining a state party to the ECHR and fully availing ourselves of the margin of appreciation to restore some common sense to our human rights regime.

As we prepare to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, will the Secretary of State recognise the extent to which the ECHR is integrated into that agreement, and the fact that leaving the convention would be a breach of his Government’s obligations under the peace process, which I am sure is something he would never countenance?

No one is more committed to the integrity of the UK than this Government. I set out the position on the Bill of Rights earlier. We have made it clear that we would not rule out ever withdrawing from the ECHR in the future. We certainly need to make sure that we have a viable legal regime that allows us to tackle illegal immigration.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, who reminded the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee earlier this month that, far from being some bureaucratic creation, the ECHR was championed by Churchill and his Conservative Government, and that leaving the convention would place the UK in the dubious company of Belarus and Russia?

I do not think that many people take issue with the convention. Of course, it was negotiated at a very different time and place. The real issue has been the mission creep and the expanding and elastic interpretations of the ECHR since that time. I am confident that, with the Bill of Rights, we can address that in a comprehensive way.

Can I just say to the two Members who want to leave that they should stay for two full questions after they have spoken? We have not yet completed this question.

May I take the Secretary of State back to his answer to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes)? If he is not ruling out ever leaving the convention, is he then not ruling out ever breaking the Good Friday agreement?

We are absolutely committed to the Good Friday agreement and the stability of Northern Ireland, which is why the efforts of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister are so important.

The Secretary of State’s proposed Bill of Rights will mandate British courts to override the European convention on human rights in certain circumstances and restrict access to convention rights through British courts, but the Good Friday agreement guarantees direct access to the courts for any breaches of the convention, so how will he achieve his plans without breaching the Good Friday agreement?

We can remain absolutely committed to the Good Friday agreement with the Bill of Rights, not least because—the hon. Gentleman would know this if he had bothered to read it—the ECHR is retained within a schedule to the Bill of Rights. He has to face up to the fact that at the moment we have too many foreign national offenders whom we cannot remove from this country because of things like elastic interpretations of article 8. If he really wants to show his mettle—as he beats his chest, given the potential reshuffle on the Labour Front Bench—he should back us in taking every measure to remove foreign national offenders, because that is what the British public care about.

The truth is that the Justice Secretary has no answer to the question and his plan to rip up the Human Rights Act will create fresh divisions in Northern Ireland, where there is still no agreement on the protocol. What discussions has he had about this reckless plan with the Government of the Republic of Ireland or with the US Government, who have made it clear that any unilateral attempt to weaken convention rights in Northern Ireland would threaten a future US-UK trade deal?

The hon. Gentleman needs to read the Bill of Rights. It envisages that we will stay a state party to the ECHR, which is retained in a schedule, so all his other concerns melt away.

Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have repeatedly failed to rule out withdrawing from the convention in the longer term, the impacts of which would be international humiliation for this country and a severe blow to international human rights law. It is shocking that these questions even have to be asked of the Government. What we need from the Justice Secretary is a full-throated defence of the convention and a commitment to the UK’s long-term membership. Instead of playing along with his more extreme Back Benchers, will he now deliver that unequivocal defence and a long-term commitment?

I am surprised to hear the SNP talk about extreme members of other parties. At the moment, the UK’s single biggest human rights concern is the trade in misery we see with the small boats and illegal immigration across the country. If the hon. Gentleman is committed to human rights, he should back us in taking every conceivably measure to deal with that problem.