Howard bars Euro-justice access

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MICHAEL HOWARD, the Home Secretary, yesterday blocked a measure to assure Europe's citizens access to justice.

Mr Howard is resisting a move to guarantee the right of individuals to petition the European Court of Human Rights, and his view seemed to prevail at yesterday's Cabinet meeting, sources said.

Mr Howard, a prominent opponent of further European integration, opposes the move because of fears it would erode British sovereignty. The Court is part of the machinery of the Council of Europe, an organisation separate from the European Union and whose membership includes the countries of both West and East Europe.

The issue arises from a change in the European Human Rights Convention which is supposed to make justice easier and faster. The Convention covers a wide range of rights and has been frequently used by individuals against the Government. One key point in the reforms is to make it mandatory for governments to allow individuals to petition the Court. At present this is voluntary.

Mr Howard wants to keep the right of individual petition voluntary, thus retaining the Government's right to block British subjects' access to the Strasbourg-based institution if it so wished. Britain currently allows individual access, but could stop it. This could send the wrong signals to Central and Eastern European countries, allowing them to duck their human rights responsibilities, critics say.

'It is quite outrageous for the Government to have this grudging attitude towards individuals' access to justice,' said Joyce Quinn MP, Labour's European spokesperson, yesterday. 'To send this signal now is really quite shocking, especially coming from one of the oldest of democracies.' The issue is likely to be raised during a debate in Parliament today on the Council of Europe.

The Home Office and the Foreign Office are battling over whether the right of individuals should be mandatory or voluntary under a new international agreement, the sources say. The Foreign Office and Douglas Hurd want this made mandatory, but the Home Office wants it left open.

The Court has embarrassed the Government over issues ranging from prisoners' rights to Northern Ireland, many of which concern the Home Office. The Government has been challenged over the Prevention of Terrorism Act, pre-trial detention and between 1983 and 1991 had more cases brought against it and more adverse judgments than any other country.