British Bill of Rights 27th May 2015
At the time of writing the Queen`s Speech, setting out the agenda for the first session of this new Parliament, has yet to be published. It will, though, begin to implement the manifesto upon which the majority Conservative Government was elected and the Prime Minister has pledged to seek to implement that manifesto “in full”.
One of the measures contained within the manifesto, headlined in bold type, is that “We will scrap the Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights.”
As an explanatory note the manifesto says that “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”.
Nothing could be much plainer and I fail to understand why some Members of Parliament elected to govern on that commitment, and having not raised the issue during their election campaigns, should now seek to step back from what was a clear undertaking.
It is suggested that to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights would in some way undermine the European edifice and diminish our standing within the wider Europe. Worse, it would, we are told, drive a coach and horses through Human Rights agreements and allow authoritative regimes to act with draconian impunity and a disdainful disregard for the Rights of Man.
I have been a Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the forty-seven Member States of the Council of Europe, of which the Court of Human Rights is an integral pillar, for some years. During that time I have gained the distinct impression that the Convention on Human Rights is an instrument that is often `honoured` more in the breach than in observance. Setting aside the tens of thousands of cases still awaiting a hearing before the Court, and including one that directly affects the “rights” of one of my constituents, there are many countries (Malta and France are two such) that hold prisoners for long periods without trial or charge in clear breach of the Convention. I seem to recall also that Russia, having illegally annexed Crimea and now engaged in aggressive operations in Eastern Ukraine, is nevertheless still a Member State of the Council of Europe and that efforts to impose sanctions from within the Parliamentary Assembly have been fought tooth and nail by representatives of Mr. Putin`s client States.
On the domestic front there is the celebrated case of a criminal whose deportation from the United Kingdom was overruled by the ECHR on the grounds that part ownership of a domestic cat and the separation from that animal would constitute a breach of his `right to a family life`! The UK is, of course, itself in breach of an ECHR ruling that a total ban on prisoners` voting rights is unlawful – an issue that remains unresolved.
The Council of Europe provides a forum in which, as an alternative to armed conflict, matters of international significance affecting the wider Europe may be debated in a relatively civilised manner and for that if for no other reason it is right that it should continue to exist. The ECHR, as the legal arm of the Council and a body that is from time to time staffed by elected Judges of dubious qualification, is supposed to have a role to play in determining issues of great importance. It was not created, by Churchill and others, to interfere in the pettifogging detail of matters that are properly under the jurisdiction of Sovereign States and we should not try to pretend that the ECHR has not become, on occasions, unacceptably meddlesome, bureaucratic, hidebound and expensive.
When the British Bill of Rights that will be introduced to replace the Human Rights Act is published in detail, and only then, it will be possible to assess any shortcomings within the proposed legislation. Until that time it seems to me that we should give this manifesto commitment a fair wind in the certain knowledge that our laws are likely to be safe in the hands of a British Supreme Court that is not, and should never become, the creature of an individual Government of any political persuasion.