Cameron's plan to overturn rights laws labelled 'complete nonsense'

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David Cameron's promise to scrap the Human Rights Act has provoked a bitter backlash from lawyers and civil liberties groups who accused him of endangering society's most vulnerable members.

Critics of the leader of the Conservative Party pointed to a succession of individuals who have benefited from the legislation since it came into force six years ago.

They range from abuse victims and an NHS patient who won the right to have a hip replacement operation in France to disabled children who received free transport and asylum-seekers denied the right to food and shelter.

Mr Cameron's attack on the Human Rights Act opens the first major policy difference with the Government since he became opposition leader nearly seven months ago.

The Act, which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, has proved highly controversial, coming under fire for allegedly protecting the rights of criminals and terrorists against the law-abiding majority.

Although Tony Blair has previously signalled his disquiet at its interpretation by some courts, government ministers made clear yesterday there was no prospect of the legislation being ditched.

Mr Cameron, who is calling for the Act to be replaced with a "British bill of rights", stepped up his onslaught yesterday on the controversial legislation, warning that this country would become a safe haven for terrorists if the law was not repealed.

He said: "It is practically an invitation for terrorists and would-be terrorists to come to Britain, safe in the knowledge ... they won't be sent back to their country of origin and may not even be detained, because the process is so complicated and time-consuming for the Government."

He added: "It is wrong to undermine public safety, and indeed public confidence in the concept of human rights, by allowing highly dangerous criminals and terrorists to trump the rights of the people of Britain to live in security and peace." In a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies in London, he confirmed an incoming Tory government would remain in the ECHR.

But he said the Human Rights Act should be replaced by a modern British Bill of Rights setting out the "core values which give us our identity as a free nation".

In that way people would still be able to pursue their claims in the European courts, but judges would have a "homegrown" statement of rights upon which to base their rulings.

But Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, dismissed the Tory plans as "a recipe for confusion, not clarity". He told BBC Radio 4: "It is utter nonsense to say you solve the problems about crime and terrorism by introducing an additional layer of rights undefined."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Mr Campbell's thinking was "muddled and confused". He said: "Under the Tory proposals, British citizens would have to take their cases to Strasbourg if they did not feel they had found justice in the British courts.

"The whole point of the Human Rights Act is that British citizens have access to the same rights as everyone else, through the British courts."

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, accused Mr Cameron of a series of "misunderstandings" concerning human rights law. She said: "Those who want to tear up the protections we already have must have a far clearer vision of what would replace them than we've seen today."

Michael Mansfield, the human rights lawyer, ridiculed the plan as " complete nonsense".

He said: "How is it hindering the investigation and prosecution of crime? No examples whatsoever. It certainly isn't doing that in relation to terrorism or terrorist cases. I'm afraid it's totally misconceived and it's tabloid driven."

Maeve Sherlock, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: " Refugees to this country often say that they feel safe in the UK because we are a country that respects human rights. We should be proud of that reputation and should defend our tradition of providing sanctuary."

How act evolved

By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent

* The origins of the Human Rights Act can be traced back to 1950 when Britain was the first country to sign a treaty to give force to a set of principles designed to prevent a return to the horrors of the Second World War. British lawyers, led by a former Tory Lord Chancellor, David Maxwell-Fyffe, helped draft the new European Convention on Human Rights. (ECHR). Since then thousands of Britons have successfully used the ECHR. In 1998 Britain finally got its own version.

It came into force in England and Wales in 2000, a year after Scotland. Despite claims to the contrary, eight years after its introduction our legal system has not collapsed under a wave of frivolous litigation.