The UK Government’s current position on the ECHR and the Human Rights Act 1998

Today, 13 February, there was a debate in Westminster Hall, initiated by Tommy Shepherd (SNP, Edinburgh East). Shorn of the hellos and thankyous (and without any comment from us), this is what the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Edward Argar, said in reply:

“The hon. Member for Edinburgh East set out not only his case, but the broader importance of human rights as a concept, highlighting a number of specific cases and examples. That is, quite rightly, a subject of real importance to all Members, and one in which I have taken a very close interest within my portfolio. It is not only intellectually fascinating but, as hon. Members have said, it permeates our national life.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of where responsibility for human rights should sit. I will not take personally his suggestion that it be moved. The reason that it currently sits with the Ministry of Justice and with me is that, although he is absolutely right to say that it is a cross-cutting issue, the Ministry of Justice is a key defender of the rule of law, and this issue goes to the heart of that. I am sure, however, that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Ministers in the Cabinet Office will have noted his points.

As many hon. Members have said, human rights in the UK are not new. The UK has a reputation for setting the highest standards, both domestically and internationally. As has been set out, that did not begin with the ECHR, the Human Rights Act 1998 or our membership of the EU—nor will it end with our exit from the EU. “Human rights” as a distinct term may have entered common usage in this country in the 20th century and developed through international treaties and organisations, but the concept of rights—and, I might add, responsibilities—in our country goes all the way back to Magna Carta in 1215, the Petition of Right in 1628, the Bill of Rights in 1689 in England and the Claim of Right in 1689 in Scotland. The concept has evolved over many centuries.

Common law developed alongside statutes and set out rules developed by the courts to govern relationships between people and Government, which we would recognise today as “rights”. We have a strong and proud track record on that. As the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) highlighted when talking about her city and its university, in many of our communities, the issue is rooted more locally. I was particularly interested in her comments about the work that the university and her city are doing in that respect.

Winston Churchill, no less, was one of the main advocates for a new regional organisation that was to become the Council of Europe. In 1942, he called for the “enthronement of human rights” and in 1948, he called for a charter of human rights that would be “guarded by freedom and sustained by law.” The European Convention on Human Rights, as many hon. Members have mentioned, was drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe, to safeguard basic political and civil rights.

I am always educated, not only in matters of the law, but in matters of history, by the shadow Minister, although in this case, it is a coincidence that I read David Maxwell Fyfe’s memoirs over Christmas. I suspect I am one of only a very small number of people in the House, or indeed in the country, to have done so.

As has been said, the UK was one of the first to sign up to the ECHR in 1951, before it came into force in 1953. It has been strengthened over the years by protocols, and the 1998 Act was a huge step forward in putting those rights on a footing whereby they could be enforced in the UK’s domestic courts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) set out, the ECHR reflects—not in totality, but in large parts—domestic laws both passed by Parliament and in previous common law. My hon. Friend’s views on the matter are always thoughtful and considered.

How are we doing in relation to the rights that we now recognise as forming our human rights framework? Let us not judge ourselves; let us see how others judge us. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley remarked that we have a proud track record. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg considered 354 applications against the UK, which equates to 5.34 applications per million inhabitants—the lowest of all 47 states parties, and one-tenth of the European average. Only 21 cases were considered by the Court to be potentially of merit and were sent to the UK for a response, with just two judgments against the UK. That touches on a point that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made about the need to strike a sensible and appropriate balance when considering such issues in a domestic context, which I think the UK generally does.

After the UK has left the EU, it will continue to afford its citizens access to well-established domestic and international mechanisms to bring their case and obtain appropriate remedies … individualswill be able to obtain appropriate remedies when they consider their rights to have been breached. That will remain under our common law, the devolution statutes and of course the Human Rights Act 1998.

At the beginning of this month, the shadow Justice Secretary, the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), asked my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, to “give a reassurance…that the Government will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act in the aftermath of our departure from the European Union”. The Secretary of State answered: “We certainly have no plans to do so”.—[Official Report, 5 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 163.] I believe that that offers reassurance—perhaps not as specific as my shadow might wish, but it offers reassurance.

As we made clear in the Chequers White Paper, and as is clear in the political declaration, the UK is committed to membership of the European Convention on Human Rights and will remain a party to it after we have left the European Union. The Lord Chancellor, and in this Chamber, the shadow Minister and others, read out the wording of our manifesto commitment on the matter. Our future relationship with the EU should be underpinned by our shared values of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. As reflected in my opening comments, the UK is committed to human rights. Our exit from the EU does not change that or signal a desire to reduce human rights protections.

I reiterate that most of those protections stem from work by the Council of Europe and under the ECHR, rather than from the EU, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out eloquently in his speech. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of all those hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, who serve on the Council of Europe. It is an organisation that, though not spoken about as often as it perhaps should be, continues to do very good work quietly and persistently. With that in mind, while I recognise the courtesy with which the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) made her point, I simply do not share her view that Brexit will leave any deep hole in human rights protections in this country.

More broadly, I too enjoyed reading Professor Miller’s recent report, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East cited, and the work undertaken for the Scottish Government by the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, which proposed new ways to draw further international commitments to which the UK is party into Scotland’s legislative framework. To underpin seven recommendations in the report, Professor Miller engaged in the broader debate about human rights in the context of socio-economic considerations and whether those should sit in a revised framework. That is part of a broader political and philosophical debate, with different views, as we have seen in the Chamber today. I suspect it is a debate that will continue. The hon. Gentleman asked whether it would continue in this place, and I have no doubt that if it does not, he will seek a debate on exactly that subject.

The SNP spokesperson, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), asked that I read and consider the report and its contents. I will do so; I am happy to read it again and to consider it carefully. I cannot give a commitment about whether I will agree with everything in it, but I will certainly reflect on it carefully, as I do with anything she suggests that I should read.

UN human rights treaties have not been incorporated into UK domestic law, and they do not require states parties to do that. The UK has instead put in place a combination of policies and legislation to give effect to the UN human rights treaties that it has ratified. We have a long-standing tradition of not only ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, but fulfilling our international human rights obligations. That aspect should not be neglected.

Some hon. Members touched on the report of the UN special rapporteur. As other Ministers have made clear, the Government will consider carefully the rapporteur’s interim findings, but they disagree with the conclusions reached by the rapporteur, highlighting that, compared with 2010, for example, income inequality has fallen, the number of children in workless households is at a record low, and 1 million fewer people are in absolute poverty. I suspect, however, that that is a debate for another day—it could take at least another hour and a half, if not more.

I am the Minister responsible for overseeing the UK’s obligations under the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and its optional protocol, and under the UN covenants on economic, social and cultural rights and on civil and political rights, not forgetting the UN human rights peer review process, the universal periodic review. I take those responsibilities seriously, and last year I went in person to Geneva to discuss the UK’s role in relation to the convention against torture with officials. Broadly, in my conversation with them, I was clear—as were they—that the UK has a continuing role in leading the way on human rights in the world.

The title of this debate is “Human Rights in the UK’, so let me sum up by reflecting on the fact that the UK has a rich tapestry of rights running throughout our history, for hundreds of years, and reaching out across the globe. They neither began nor will end with the EU, and many of the key rights stem from the Council of Europe. I appreciate entirely that, during times of change, voices will rightly be raised to question protections and the future, challenging Government. It is absolutely right for that debate to take place.

Let us focus on the commitments given, the protections in place and our historical role—we should be judged on those and on this country’s proud commitment to human rights. Many have suggested that human rights matter; I go further, echoing the words of my noble Friend Lord Keen of Elie: human rights are central to the way we live now and to the way we wish to live in the future. They are an integral part of the society of which we wish to be a part, and a reflection of our identity as individuals and as a country.”

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