A government minister has threatened to quit if the Conservatives go through with their manifesto pledge of scrapping the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. The issue promises to be one of the main dividing lines in an already fractious party, signaling a rough ride ahead for David Cameron as he struggles to rule with a slender majority.
Operating under the assumption that they would be sharing government with the Liberal Democrats for a second term, the Conservatives included in their election manifesto a promise to: “scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK.”
The pledge is being championed by Michael Gove in his new role as Justice Secretary. Gove is sympathetic to the proposal, having previously stated his opposition to Human Rights Culture, which he said “supplants common sense and common law, and erodes individual dignity by encouraging citizens to see themselves as supplicants and victims to be pensioned by the state.”
Also in support of the idea is former defence secretary Dr Liam Fox, who is on record as having said “This is not an argument about human rights. For me, this is an argument about sovereignty.
“Britain’s laws should be decided by Britain’s parliament and adjudicated by Britain’s courts. That applies to both the European Convention on Human Rights, which I think should be transferred to a British Bill of Rights, and the European Union in general.”
Government sources have said that the Queen’s Speech will include a promise to introduce a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. But with both Labour and the Scottish National Party opposed, there is no guarantee that the relevant legislation would be presented this year. One source told the Telegraph: “The most important thing is to do it right, rather than quickly.”
For her part, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has made it plain that her cabal of 56 MPs, the third largest group in the House of Commons, intend to stave off any changes to current legislation. “The Tory government’s priority is ending human rights, and the opportunities for fairness they offer ordinary men and women,” she said. “To scrap the Human Rights Act would be an appallingly retrograde step.”
Mr Cameron’s majority of just 12 means that he will need the full support of every one of his MPs if the legislation is to pass.
But one minister, who declined to be named, has already said that they would give up their seat in order to vote against any legislation to scrap the Act. “I will probably oppose it,” the government figure said. “The idea that my constituents should have fewer protections available as a last resort is not something that I can accept.”
Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general has also said that he believes scrapping the Act would diminish Britain’s global standing and undermine international efforts to enforce human rights.
“A Bill of Rights that places us outside the European Convention on Human Rights would be reputationally disastrous for this country and would have very serious consequences for the survival of the Convention,” he said.
Meanwhile, there is much uncertainty over whether the move is even possible. The Conservative pledge came about due to unease regarding the way the European Convention on Human Rights – and in particular Article 8 which sets out the right to a family life – has been used by foreign criminals to avoid deportation.
At the 2011 Conservative Party Conference, Home Secretary Theresa May told delegates “We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act… about the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat.”
She stated that the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the Convention on Human Rights into UK law “had to go”. But questions have been raised over whether scrapping the Act to replace it with a Bill of Rights would be sufficient to alter the situation as Britain would still be signed up to the Convention. Consequently, Strasbourg’s judges would still have supremacy over British judges. Similarly, membership of the EU confers on Britain obligations to abide by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, again, granting Strasbourg supremacy over the British legal system.
As Grieve recently pointed out, replacing the Act with a Bill of Rights does little more than change the statue which ratifies the Convention, writing “While I entirely support the principle that our Supreme Court should not be fettered to Strasbourg jurisprudence, the reality is that in the vast majority of issues its approach will lead to very similar outcomes and there will still be instances in which government ministers and the public do not approve of the result. We will thus have taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Dominic Cummings, a former special advisor to Michael Gove, has also set out these problems on his blog, and asks two questions: “A) Will the Government leave the ECHR so that not only will we have our own Human Rights Act but British citizens will not be able to go to Strasbourg any more than US or Chinese citizens can?
“B) Will the Government roll the ECHR/Strasbourg supremacy issue into its renegotiation of EU membership in order that the manifesto promise is kept and the Supreme Court is made ‘supreme’?”
Cummings argues that the problem can only be solved by a “truly radical approach to EU renegotiation”, one that doesn’t allow for a “half-way house” agreement. ” Excited Tory pundits should keep their enthusiasm for radicalism in check. David Cameron has successfully played on the ignorance of MPs and the media about these issues for a decade to encourage a feeling of radicalism in some quarters while the lawyers read the actual words and know the truth.”
Speaking to Breitbart London, Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of the Bow Group said that the debate is in many ways a proxy for the wider issue of EU membership. “The debate on ECHR membership has already been disingenuously portrayed as the “scrapping” of the Human Rights Bill and the curtailment of the rights of British Citizens.
“What has actually been proposed is the replacement of our Membership of the European Convention on Human Rights with our own British Bill of Rights. We are yet to see a proposal on its content from the Ministry of Justice, but at this point there is no reason to assume it would not protect the rights of British citizens at least to the degree our membership of the ECHR does.
“What we are really seeing here is in an early dress rehearsal for the EU referendum vote, whilst it may not occur until 2017, it is already the fault – line of this government and probably the Prime Minister’s biggest challenge. With a few notable exceptions, those in the “better off in” camp are lining up in favour of remaining part of the ECHR, and those who believe we are “better off out” of the EU are advocating that we signal our intentions by developing our own British Bill of Rights.
“Whatever the result this debate occurring less than a month after the surprise Conservative General Election victory, with threats of resignations and rebellions already welling up, exposes the reality that whilst the Conservative GE result was far better than expected, the government is operating with a very small majority. The Prime Ministers honeymoon period has clearly been more of a mini-break, normal service is resumed.”