Tories ‘to challenge European court with British bill of rights’
Reported plan risks UK’s expulsion from the Council of Europe and could even threaten Britain’s membership of EU.
David Cameron is heading for a huge showdown over Europe with a plan to assert the supremacy of parliament over the European court of human rights to avoid a repeat of the rows over the deportation of foreign criminals, the BBC has reported.
Nick Herbert, the former Tory justice minister, endorsed the proposed changes in a new British bill of rights, which would mean that parliament would rule on what constitutes a breach of human rights.
The radical changes, which risk Britain’s expulsion from the Council of Europe, the pan-European human rights watchdog, are possible after the prime minister’s abrupt sacking of the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, in this week’s reshuffle.
Grieve described the changes as a “legal car crash with a built-in time delay”, according to the BBC, which also reported that William Hague, who lost his job as foreign secretary this week, has expressed doubts.
The changes, drawn up by a group of Tory lawyers, are expected to be unveiled at the Conservatives‘ annual conference in the autumn for inclusion in the party’s general election manifesto. They are designed to encourage a change of behaviour by the Strasbourg-based court, according the BBC.
The prime minister is determined to avoid a repeat of the prolonged battle to deport the preacher Abu Qatada and the call by the ECHR for prisoners to be given the right to vote.
Abu Qatada resisted deportation to Jordan for a decade after the ECHR ruled that his human rights would be breached. He was finally deported last year after Britain signed an agreement with Jordan to guarantee him a fair trial.
The Tory lawyers who have drawn up the bill of rights have reportedly acknowledged that the changes could lead to Britain’s expulsion from the 47-strong Council of Europe. It oversees the European convention on human rights, which was drawn up after the second world war and which is enforced by the Strasbourg court.
Grieve told the Guardian after his sacking this week that withdrawing from the European court of human rights could threaten Britain’s membership of the EU. EU members have to be members of the separate Council of Europe.
But Nick Herbert, the former justice minister, supported the change. He told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: “I don’t think there is anything to fear from saying why don’t we apply the important principles of the convention of human rights, that Britain had a hand in drafting, in our domestic courts. We have a supreme court now. Let it be supreme and let parliament be the final arbiter and take full control over these matters.”
The Tories cannot introduce the changes in government and can only outline the proposals in their general election manifesto because the Liberal Democrats oppose such radical reforms. Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem justice minister, told the Today programme: “As a matter of policy for the UK it is in our interests – the interests of every single citizen – that we should keep the Human Rights Act, that we should make sure that we continue to be subscribers to the convention and that human rights at the highest standard should be enforced in this country and across the rest of Europe.
“If we think Strasbourg has got it wrong the present supreme court is clear – we are entitled to say to Strasbourg we take into account what you say but we don’t think you have understood the implication of this in our country and please therefore think again.
“So the present arrangement is a dialogue – that is the phrase used by the president of the supreme court – between the UK supreme court [and the ECHR]. And the UK supreme court does, in the end, have authority in this country. But we don’t think the principle of having a European-wide standard for human rights is complicated. We think it is a very good thing. Otherwise, how can we tell Ukrainians and Russians that they have got to uphold human rights if we don’t do so ourselves?”
The Tory lawyers drawing up the changes have faced strong resistance from Grieve and Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, who also left the government. Grieve told a parliamentary committee that such changes risked creating anarchy.
He said: “It seems to me that one has to think very carefully about what the consequences are in deciding that you can cherry-pick the obligations that you are going to accept. Whilst it may be perfectly possible to disregard them you are creating a degree of anarchy in the international order that you are trying to promote.”