The Tory manifesto, released in the run up to the General Election, promised a new ‘British Bill of Rights’ that would: “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 former education, now justice secretary, Michael Gove has been tasked with leading the government’s controversial repealing of the Human Rights Act.
The former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve has recently questioned what the government is trying to achieve. He told Sky News: “Is it merely a cosmetic change or is it a desire to do something radically different?”
“The latter would pose problems in relation to Britain’s relationship with the Council of Europe, he said, as well as the European Union, which requires its member states to adhere to the convention. He also stressed that the Supreme Court is “already supreme” and suggested the government was promising something that already exists, arguing that: “At the end of the day, what are the benefits going to be compared to the costs of change?”
It has been speculated that a number of Tory MPs will rebel over these changes. Senior Conservatives including former Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke and former Tory Chairman Baroness Warsi also oppose the move. The latter blasting the proposals as: “An attack on the very values we were professing to promote”. Writing on Conservative Home, she said: “This could have been a moment at which to raise our eyes to the sunny uplands of a future united cohesive nation, in which the opportunities that this country has to offer are available to all. Instead, the plans feel like an attack on the very values we are professing to promote.”
The Human Rights Act, which received royal assent in 1998, aims to incorporate into UK law the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), drawn up by the Council of Europe in September 1953. All 47 European countries, with the exception of Belarus, are party to the convention. The proposed changes have come much criticism because of this, with First Minister Carwyn Jones saying that the UK could become like a “banana republic” if it pulls out. Even if the new Conservative government replaces the act with a promised bill of rights, the UK would still be party to the terms of the ECHR – whose post-war drafting, ironically, was overseen by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the British Conservative politician and lawyer.
Also criticising the plans, Charlie Flanagan, the Irish foreign minister, recently told the Irish Senate that the Human Rights Act “is woven into the structure” of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the UK and Irish governments and the protagonists in Northern Ireland’s sectarian politics. “The shared emphasis on human rights is part of what makes the peace process credible,” he said. Additionally, Carwyn Jones has said: “Can anybody name one thing the Human Rights Act has done which merits its abolition?” The Government of Wales Act 2006 sets out the fact that Welsh Ministers are prevented from making any legislation or undertaking any action incompatible with Convention rights as defined by the Human Rights Act.
Ultimately, whatever arguments, from left or right, that come to fruition in the run up to the proposal coming to a vote in the Commons, are likely to come up to substantial resistance from the government’s front bench.