Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

There May be trouble ahead for human rights in the UK

There May be trouble ahead for human rights in the UK


The government has been left chasing its tail after the home secretary gave a 'vote leave' to the ECHR, unbeknownst to her colleagues, writes John van der Luit-Drummond

The government has been left chasing its tail after the home secretary gave a 'vote leave' to the ECHR, unbeknownst to her colleagues, writes John van der Luit-Drummond

When Theresa May stood to deliver a speech backing the nation's EU membership, few would have predicted that her illuminating comments would expose a deep and widening rift in the government, and the Conservative party, over the future direction of human rights in the UK.

After calling for a withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), regardless of the EU referendum outcome, condemnation of the home secretary was widespread, swift, and merciless. Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael accused May of going 'rogue'; Labour's Lord Falconer called her views 'ignorant, illiberal, and misguided'; and human rights group Liberty bemoaned the Home Office chief for 'mud-slinging and myth-spreading'.

May's subsequent failure to clarify her comments before MPs should have come as no surprise. Instead, her colleagues at the Ministry of Justice were left to face intense interrogation on whether a retreat from the ECHR was now government policy.

Speaking at justice questions, a litter of ministers took to the despatch box in a vain attempt at damage control. Failing to definitively address the issue, the justice secretary, Michael Gove, said he believed the UK should remain a signatory to the ECHR, while Dominic Raab, the minister for human rights, explained that, though withdrawal was not government policy, the idea had not been ruled out.

Responding to criticism that its approach was confusing, the attorney general explained that the government had 'no objections' to the convention's text, that it was a 'fine document', and that the rights enshrined within it should remain part of a 'reformed human rights framework'. Expanding on his remarks, Jeremy Wright QC argued the government had a 'mandate to reform and modernise' the UK's human rights laws, prevent their abuse, and restore 'common sense to the system'. Clearly critical of the 'expansionist approach' of Strasbourg and the Human Rights Act (HRA), the senior law officer said the government wanted to remain an ECHR signatory, but not at any cost.

Wright then further muddied the waters, revealing that although plans to scrap the HRA had moved on from the back of a fag packet, we are still no closer to seeing that fabled panacea for human rights exploitation: a draft British Bill of Rights (BBR). Like a schoolboy claiming the dog had eaten his homework, Wright deflected one uncomfortable question after another about the Bill's mysterious contents. 'We will fully consult on our proposals,' he repeated again and again, while arguing that maintaining the status quo was unacceptable to vast swathes of the public.

Reminded by Stewart Malcolm McDonald MP that it was the European Court of Human Rights that ensured gay men and women could serve in the UK's armed forces, the attorney general said it was wrong to suggest such outcomes could only be achieved by reference to Strasbourg or the convention. Instead, domestic courts and democratically elected governments should be trusted to make those decisions.

The irony of this statement should not be overestimated, coming as it did just hours after a jury returned a verdict of 'unlawful killing' for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. For 27 years, the families of the victims fought for justice. A new inquest gave them that. An inquest, it should be noted, which would not have been available but for article 2 of the ECHR being enshrined into law by the HRA, a fact conveniently omitted by Wright and from May's subsequent statement to parliament.

There is clear confusion at the heart of government. The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing and those not at the extreme of the Conservative party have a problem. With the government's BBR still a pipe dream, the future of human rights in the UK may depend on the outcome of the next Tory leadership contest and, with the home secretary - whose commitment to human rights is tenuous at best - playing to an adoring crowd of swivel-eyed backbenchers, the stakes could not be higher.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal