Conservative plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights have faced opposition since their inception. Such has been the extent of opposition – from Liberal Democrats during the Coalition years, from Labour critics and indeed a considerable number of Conservatives – that the Queen’s Speech following the 2015 General Election made no mention of scrapping HRA, despite the fact that it was in the Conservative Party manifesto.
However, yesterday Theresa May reignited the issue, arguing that even if the UK remains in the EU, it should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Speaking in parliament, May stated ‘[T]he ECHR can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals, and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights. So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this: if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court’.
Theresa May used her first significant intervention of the EU referendum campaign to remind voters that the ECHR almost stopped the deportation of Abu Qatada, a Jordanian national accused of terrorism links.
May has been accused of misrepresenting the UK’s obligations to the ECHR, since the Convention does not actually ‘bind the hands of parliament’. Judges can make ‘declarations of incompatibility’ when UK law conflicts with the ECHR, but the UK cannot be compelled to amend legislation as parliament remains sovereign.
This issue is likely to contribute to cabinet splits. Michael Gove responded to May’s call to withdraw from the ECHR and, in an Ministry of Justice statement, stated that the Home Secretary’s view was certainly not government policy.
See here for The Guardian’s take.
How this story can be used:
Unit 1 – Parties and Policies – ideological divisions within the Conservative Party .
Judiciary – conflict between the executive and judiciary; protection of civil liberties.
Executive – it can be used to assess how adept Cameron is at managing his cabinet and the ways in which infighting can impact PM power.
Constitution – withdrawing from the HRA could provoke a constitutional crisis since it would violate Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon has also said that she would challenge any move by the government to drop the ECHR.