Cameron’s pledge to scrap Human Rights Act
Cameron’s pledge to scrap Human Rights Act angers civil rights groups
Prime minister’s plans for landmark legislation criticised as shameful destruction of Winston Churchill’s legacy
Civil rights groups have condemned David Cameron’s pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act as a shameful destruction of Winston Churchill’s legacy.
The prime minister’s confirmation that a future majority Conservative government would repeal Labour’s landmark legislation and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights” raised more questions than it answered, campaigners said.
Director of the civil rights organisation Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, said: “Shame on the prime minister for citing Churchill, while promising to trash his legacy. The convention protects both prisoners of war and soldiers sent off to fight and die with inadequate equipment. But the prime minister believes there is no place for human rights in Helmand – on that, he and Isis agree.”
Amnesty UK’s campaigns director, Tim Hancock, said: “Theresa May made much in her speech about how we must stand up and fight for human rights abroad, it makes absolutely no sense to denigrate those same rights at home.
“It’s exasperating to hear the prime minister vow to tear up the Human Rights Act again – so he can draft ‘his own’. Human rights are not in the gift of politicians to give. They must not be made a political plaything to be bestowed or scrapped on a whim. It’s time politicians accepted that they too have to follow the rules and that those rules include the civilising human rights standards Churchill championed.”
In his speech to the party conference in Birmingham, Cameron did not explicitly threaten to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, a move that would have wide-ranging, international repercussions for the UK’s relationship with Europe.
The prime minister told Conservative delegates: “It’s not just the European Union that needs sorting out – it’s the European court of human rights. When that charter was written, in the aftermath of the second world war, it set out the basic rights we should respect.
“But since then, interpretations of that charter have led to a whole lot of things that are frankly wrong. Rulings to stop us deporting suspected terrorists. The suggestion that you’ve got to apply the human rights convention even on the battlefields of Helmand. And now – they want to give prisoners the vote. I’m sorry, I just don’t agree.”
He continued: “Our parliament – the British parliament – decided they shouldn’t have that right. This is the country that wrote Magna Carta, the country that time and again has stood up for human rights – whether liberating Europe from fascism or leading the charge today against sexual violence in war.
“Let me put this very clearly: we do not require instruction on this from judges in Strasbourg. So at long last, with a Conservative government after the next election, this country will have a new British Bill of Rights, to be passed in our parliament, rooted in our values. And as for Labour’s Human Rights Act? We will scrap it, once and for all.”
Labour’s justice spokesman, Sadiq Khan, said: “I’ve lost count of how many times the Tories have promised a British Bill of Rights. But still they can’t spell out how it would differ from the Human Rights Act. If it is different, Cameron needs to be honest with the British people and say which rights he wants to strip from them – the right to a fair trial, the right to life or perhaps the right to privacy or freedom of expression?
“We’ve heard a lot of frenzied talk from Chris Grayling and Theresa May over recent months threatening to pull the UK out of the European convention on human rights. That now seems off the table, which is a massive victory for common sense and a humiliating defeat for the red-faced home and justice secretaries. We’re yet to see the details of the latest Tory plans, but walking away from the ECHR would have had catastrophic ramifications for our global standing.”
The director of the law reform charity Justice, Andrea Coomber, said: “The prime minister has been talking about a British Bill of Rights for eight years, and yet still no detail. How will a British Bill of Rights differ from the Human Rights Act? Presumably it will still protect against torture, slavery, arbitrary detention and protect our rights to speech, association and private and family life. All rights protected in the Human Rights Act, reflecting our international obligations. The reality is that the rights will be the same, and – unless we pull out of the council of Europe – we will still have to implement decisions of the European court of human rights.
“The Human Rights Act gets the balance right between protecting our rights and preserving parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament isn’t right 100% of the time, as ID cards, control orders and DNA databases remind us. If we give our parliament the right to a “pick and mix” approach to human rights standards, we send the message that that is also OK for the Duma. If he rule of law is tempered by the popular majority, it becomes no real rule at all. Talk about this kind of British Bill of Rights might be good politics, but it’s unnecessary and dangerous for our constitution.”
Sean Humber, head of the human rights department at law firm Leigh Day, said: “The proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act would in practical terms make it harder, slower and more expensive for people to assert their human rights.
“However, these human rights obligations would remain. By signing up to the European convention on human rights convention over 60 years ago, this country agreed to secure the rights and freedoms set out in the convention to everyone within our jurisdiction and to rectify any breach found by the court, the body formed to adjudicate on disputes. We would remain bound by these responsibilities until and unless we decide to leave the convention these obligations remain, irrespective of what is done with the Human Rights Act.
“Scrapping the act will simply mean that more decisions are made by judges in Strasbourg on human rights issues rather than their counterparts in British courts. A somewhat perverse outcome, given the Conservatives professed distaste for being told what to do by some ‘international court’.”
Many senior judges, however, have been urging a constitutional renegotiation of the relationship between parliament, British judges and the ECHR in Strasbourg.
In an article published this week in Counsel magazine, the former lord chief justice, Lord Judge, said: “Debates in parliament show that the suggestion that legislative authority should be given to the Strasbourg court to ‘bind’ our courts here was expressly rejected. And if it could not bind our courts, it certainly could not bind parliament.”
On the ECHR’s insistence that the UK grant some prisoners the right to vote, he said: “In my view it would be a negation of the democratic process for members of parliament to be obliged to vote for a measure with which they disagree.”
The UK was one of the first countries to ratify the European convention on human rights in 1951. It was championed early on by Winston Churchill as a means of preventing the re-emergence of fascism.
Cameron first promised to scrap the Human Rights Act in 2007 although Tories voted for the legislation when it went through parliament in 1998. What has not been made clear is what would be in a British Bill of Rights: whether it would leave out key rights currently guaranteed by the legislation.
Last year the European court in Strasbourg dealt with 1,652 applications against the UK. Of those, 98.8% were declared inadmissible or struck out. In only eight cases (0.4%) did the court find at least one violation of convention rights.
Legal reformers and senior judges have been attempting to craft a revised relationship that will ease tensions between Westminster and Strasbourg without requiring the UK to withdraw from the European convention on human rights.
A more detailed explanation of what will be in the next Tory manifesto is expected to be unveiled by the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, on Thursday.
i think hes got slim chance of winning any election now so not to much to worry about.
It seems no one in power likes the HR's Act and here is an example of Alex Salmond's views relating to a Scottish lawyer who highlights HR abuses.
How awful for a First Minister to be making such comments against a lawyer and in regard to Human Rights.
European human rights rulings 'to be curbed' by Tories
The Conservatives have described their plans to stop British laws being overruled by human rights judgements from Strasbourg as "viable and legal".
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said if the Tories won the 2015 election, a new Bill of Rights would give UK courts and Parliament the "final say".
There should be no "legal blank cheque to take human rights into areas where they have never applied", he added.
But former Attorney General Dominic Grieve said the plans were flawed.
The Tory MP said they would be "difficult to implement" and risked "undermining" the UK's - and his own party's - tradition of upholding human rights.
Labour and the Lib Dems have said the proposals are politically motivated while the UK Independence Party claimed they were "worthless".
The Conservatives have pledged for a decade to scrap the 1998 Human Rights Act, introduced under the Labour government, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.
Conservatives' human rights proposals[221 KB]
In his speech to the Conservative conference on Wednesday, David Cameron said if his party formed the next government, it would replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.
Dominic Grieve: Paper includes "a number of howlers which are simply factually inaccurate"
The Tories have also said they would be prepared to exercise their right to withdraw from the European Convention if Parliament and the British courts could not veto laws from applying to the UK.
Analysis by legal correspondent Clive Coleman
The European Convention on Human Rights was concluded in the aftermath of World War Two, drafted by British lawyers and supported by Winston Churchill.
It enshrined human rights that applied equally to all, the good guys and the bad guys.
The UK signed up to that and to a 'club', The Council of Europe, whose members work cooperatively on matters relating to human rights and the rule of law across Europe.
A condition of membership is abiding by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.
These proposals address what is described as mission creep, decisions of that court into areas never intended.
They amount to saying, we want to change the rules of the club as they apply to us and we want to be able to limit human rights in respect of some people who abuse their responsibilities.
The Conservatives say they'd write the text of the European Convention into UK law, but with limitations on some rights.
But critics say this is human rights "a la carte", and that it is not legally possible without the UK leaving not just the Council of Europe, but the EU.
But Mr Grayling told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the European Court of Human Rights, whose role it is to apply the rights set out in the European Convention, had "moved a long way away" from its founders' principles.
Laws, he said, should apply in only the most serious cases and be clearly defined to stop courts applying them to "whole new areas of public life".
"I think the people of this country believe that... decisions on these things - such as whether prisoners should be sent to jail for the rest of their lives without the chance of release and whether prisoners should be given the vote... should be addressed in our courts and in our Parliament."
The Council of Europe, comprising European Convention member states, said it was "inconceivable" that the UK, as a founding member, could leave.
Interestingly the Scottish Government comes to the rescue.
Don't write off the Tories at the next election because as the economy recovers voters will return to the fold. The spectre of the UKIP is one to fear however and of course this latest human rights rejection is aimed at silencing the Europhobes.
Be cynical if you like but I believe that we can look forward to the SNP reviewing their justice policies and suspect changes are on the way.
Thats a relief to hear Iain.
I believe also there will be changes coming to the justice policies for us here in Scotland.
this is rather ironic.