The Conservatives’ plans to dilute the influence of the European Court of Human Rights before the next general election were pronounced “dead” last night after a commission set up to review the issue ended in deadlock.
The Liberal Democrats vowed to block any moves to change the Act which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. Today, a nine-member panel set up by the Government was unable to agree amongst themselves on whether there should be a British Bill of Rights, which the Tories support.
Baroness (Helena) Kennedy, a Labour peer, and Philippe Sands, a law professor, refused to join the other seven members in signing up to the merits of such a measure. Writing in The Independent today, they warn that a British Bill would “be used to strip people of basic rights and decouple the UK from the European Convention.”
Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, who is determined to reform human rights laws, will try to salvage something from yesterday’s inconclusive report from the commission. But his proposals early next year will be limited, and even they may have to be shelved until after the 2015 election because of Lib Dem opposition.
A senior Lib Dem source said last night: “There is absolutely no question of this Coalition Government repealing the Human Rights Act or withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. The Conservatives are perfectly entitled to develop their own policies for their election manifesto."
The other seven members of the panel concluded that a British version would provide “no less protection” than is contained in the current 1998 Human Rights Act, passed by the previous Labour Government to incorporate the Convention into British law, ensuring that people bringing actions did not face such a long wait to take a case to Europe. The seven concluded there is a "lack of ownership" of the current Act and the European system related to it.
Yesterday’s study of a British Bill, which would have codified the UK’s unwritten constitution, was launched after mounting Tory anger over a series of controversial rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. They included giving prisoners the vote at general elections and blocking the extradition of alleged terrorists.
The impasse on the commission is hardly a surprise. Chaired by retired civil servant Sir Leigh Lewis, it included four legal experts appointed by David Cameron and four by Nick Clegg.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the pressure group Liberty, said: "This 18 month-long shambles wasn't an attempt at papering over cracks of consensus on rights and freedoms but at bridging the Grand Canyon. The majority includes people who would replace human rights with citizens’ privileges that can be stripped away by Government – they ignored their consultation responses and own terms of reference which were supposed to be about building on Convention rights, not destroying them. Whatever your view of human rights, you have to respect the courage and clarity of Kennedy and Sands for exposing the nonsense."
Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary described the commission, which cost £700,000, as a waste of money and a "classic political fudge, designed to paper over the cracks within the Tory-led Government".
He said: "The Human Rights Act is our Bill of Rights, and already provides legal protection against torture and slavery, and enshrines in law the right to liberty, to open and fair justice and to protest.”
“It upholds freedom of speech, the right to a private life and to religious freedoms. The Act was always intended to be a living bill of rights and it's important that it continues to reflect changing society."
Convention Centre: The European Court
The European Court of Human Rights has aimed to apply and protect civil and political rights of European citizens since the aftermath of the Second World War.
Set up in 1959 in the French city of Strasbourg, it abides by principles set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the rights of free expression, privacy, liberty and the right to a fair trial, among others. The court considers cases brought by individuals, organisations and states against the countries bound by the convention.
The Human Rights Act allows British courts to make remedy for breaches of the convention. The Act also makes it unlawful for any public body to act in a way incompatible with the convention.