Clarke to seek European court reform

Andrew Woodcock,Pa
Sunday 20 February 2011 13:14

There is no prospect of the current Government pulling Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights or defying the rulings of the Court in Strasbourg, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke insisted today.

But Mr Clarke said that he will seek to initiate reform of the European Court of Human Rights to rebalance its relations with national courts when the UK takes over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe in November.

Rows over prisoners being given the right to vote and the right to appeal for removal from the sex offenders register have revived calls from some Conservative right-wingers for the UK to withdraw from the Convention.

But Mr Clarke today said it would be "startling" for any British Government to say that it will not comply with the rulings of any court whose jurisdiction it recognises.

He was dismissive of the overwhelming House of Commons vote earlier this month for the Government to maintain the blanket ban on prisoners' voting, suggesting backbench MPs were like litigants who did not want to accept that the law was against them.

"I used to be a practising lawyer myself and trying to give legal advice to a litigant who doesn't want to be told what the law is and wishes it was something else is always difficult," he told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show.

The "best legal advice" remained that Britain can comply with the European Court by giving prisoners serving less than four years the vote, said Mr Clarke.

"We are considering the debate we had in the House of Commons and considering what the legal position is but everybody - the Prime Minister and everybody else - has said we will of course comply with the law. It would be startling if we had a British government which said we aren't going to comply with legal judgments."

Mr Clarke is widely considered to be the Cabinet minister who the Tory right would most like to see stripped of his post in any reshuffle, thanks to his liberal views on penal policy and his plans to reduce prison numbers.

But he brushed off suggestions he was under threat, insisting that all of his policies had been discussed with Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg and won the collective approval of the Cabinet.

"Obviously, when I was appointed, it was decided in this Government to have a moderate Justice Secretary," said Mr Clarke. "Nobody thought I was from the hanging and flogging wing of the party, nobody thought I was going to delight the Mail on Sunday.

"I personally think it would be quite a step to suddenly swing to the right and to go back to the kind of law and order politics where each party accuses the other of being soft on crime. Every sensible person is tough on crime."

Mr Clarke said: "There is no question of this Government denouncing the European Convention on Human Rights. It is part of our programme to continue to adhere to that. Only the Greek colonels have ever repudiated the European Convention of Human Rights.

"But there is a good case, I think, for reforming the Court. Behind all the heat, there is a little light to be shed on whether we shouldn't in the Council of Europe address how the Court behaves.

"How far does it go into things which legislatures and national courts could do? Are we certain that the Court operates properly? It has got an enormous number of judges. Could it handle its caseload quicker?

"When we get the chairmanship of the Council of Europe in November, I hope and I intend that we will take a lead in trying to get this Court to reform itself and quite a lot of other countries share what I call more reasonable doubts about all this.

"Shouldn't we have a look at this Court and get clear what the relationship is between national courts, national parliaments and the Court in Strasbourg?"

The Government will shortly launch its planned Commission on the creation of a British Bill of Rights, but Mr Clarke said it was not yet clear exactly how such a law would interact with the European Convention.

Membership of the Commission is likely to be announced within the next week and its terms of reference shortly afterwards, he said.

"The Government's policy is to continue to be a signatory of the European Convention of Human Rights and the Government's policy is to have a Commission to investigate the case for a British Bill of Rights and whether that could improve the relationship between Strasbourg and here," he said.

It emerged today that a test case is being brought at Strasbourg by criminals locked up in psychiatric hospitals demanding the right to receive benefits.

But Mr Clarke made clear he believed they had little prospect of success: "I wouldn't anticipate the judgment of the Court, but when people in Broadmoor have tried to claim benefits in the past they haven't got anywhere.

"(Work and Pensions Secretary) Iain Duncan Smith is reforming our welfare system, but I don't think he has that in mind."

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