Theresa May spoke out. Then the Attorney General had to answer an urgent question in Parliament. Michael Gove chipped in. We’re all a bit confused about the Government’s plans for human rights in the UK.
Let’s follow the clues.
On Tuesday, a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament (MP), Alistair Carmichael asked an urgent question in Parliament. He wanted to know if the Home Secretary, Theresa May, would make a statement on the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), following her comments from the previous day suggesting that she wants the UK to leave the ECHR. You can read the full question and answer here.
What did the Attorney General say?
The Attorney General is chief legal adviser to the government. The current holder of the post, Jeremy Wright said that the Government has “no objections to the text of the [European Convention on Human Rights]”, stating that it is a “fine document”. However, he reminded MPs of the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and said that the Government intends to fulfil this commitment in the course of this Parliament, so before 2020. He said that the Government’s proposed consultation on the future of the UK’s human rights framework “will be published in due course”.
Shadow Justice Minister, Andy Slaughter, and Shadow Justice and Home Affairs spokesperson for the Scottish National Party (SNP), Joanna Cherry, asked when we can expect this consultation. However, no new information was given, with the Attorney General saying the consultation will begin when the proposals are ready.
As was the case when Justice Secretary Michael Gove appeared in front of a Parliamentary Committee in February, little information about the content or direction of the Government’s plan for human rights was given, but there were a few points of note.
What we learned from the Attorney General’s answer
The Attorney General said that the Government’s preference is “to seek to achieve reforms while remaining members of the European Convention”. But this is quite different to what Theresa May said the day before. The reforms are supposed to curb the perceived mission creep of the European Court of Human Rights and to stop the court acting as a final court of appeal, which was also raised by Theresa May.
While the Government will seek to remain a signatory of the ECHR, there is a proviso. The Government would not remain part of the ECHR “at any cost”. If their British Bill of Rights cannot be accommodated within the ECHR, then they may have to withdraw. Without knowing specifically what the Government wants to achieve, it is hard to assess whether or not this could be a realistic outcome.
Importantly, Michael Gove and Dominic Ra lab, both justice ministers and both campaigners for Brexit, also supported the Government’s position.
The Brexit effect
The coming referendum on the European Union (EU) looms over this debate, even though the European Convention on Human Rights is institutionally separate from the European Union. Some take the view that continuing membership of the EU requires that the UK remains a signatory of the ECHR.
It is clear that any new members of the EU are expected to be a signatory to the ECHR. However, the Government’s view is that it is unclear whether an existing EU member state is required to be an ECHR signatory. This highlights the very interesting debate about how the EU and ECHR interact, which RightsInfo covered recently in our post on the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights.
What about the Good Friday Agreement?
Lady Sylvia Hermon, an independent MP from Northern Ireland, made a passionate statement in support of the ECHR. She asked what consideration the Government had given to the delicate situation in Northern Ireland when developing their human rights proposals, given that the ECHR formed a key part of the Good Friday Agreement, an important document negotiated during the Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s. The Attorney General stated the Government were aware of the complexities but could say no more.
What we know now
So what have we learnt from this? First, it seems that Theresa May’s advocacy for leaving the ECHR is not the Government’s view at present. The Government appears to prefer remaining a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, if “possible”. Second, we have no more information on when the government will consult on this potential change or the content of their proposals. Watch this space!
You can read more about the Government’s plans for a British Bill of Rights here. For more on the Human Rights Act, read our Explainer post here and our article on 15 Things You Didn’t Know The Human Rights Act Has Done For Us.