The government will decide on the future of the landmark legislation once “the process of leaving the EU concludes”, a letter to a parliamentary inquiry says.
The wording was described as “troubling” by the Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee, which warned the letter casts doubt on repeated pledges to protect the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
“Is the government sincere in its commitment to the ECHR?”, asked Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, the committee’s chair.
“If so, why has it failed to give assurances that it will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act, which in essence incorporates the rights set out in the ECHR into domestic British law?”
The committee wrote to the Ministry of Justice after the alarm was raised by the wording of the political declaration, which was agreed with the EU in December alongside the legally binding divorce deal.
The declaration said the UK would merely agree “to respect the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights” – dropping the previous pledge of being “committed” to it.
In response, Edward Argar, a junior justice minister, wrote: “The difference in wording does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the ECHR.
“A central tenet of our future relationship with the EU is our mutual belief in the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
But he then suggested that the Human Rights Act could be scrapped when Brexit is concluded.
“Our manifesto committed to not repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act while the process of EU exit is underway,” he wrote.
“It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape.
Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: “This new Conservative threat to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights is a scandal.”
Before the act was passed in 1998, anyone who believed their human rights had been breached could not pursue a ruling in a domestic court – and had to go to Strasbourg.
Pushed through by Tony Blair’s government, it is hailed by many as among his finest achievements, but is a bete noire for many Conservatives for giving too many rights to criminals and even for undermining personal responsibility.
The threat to undo it comes despite the Brexit white paper insisting, last summer, that the UK would remain in the ECHR, after the EU warned that pulling out would jeopardise a future security deal
The peers said it would imperil human rights if the government “intend to break the formal link” between the UK courts and the EHCR.
Baroness Kennedy said: “Again and again we are told that the government is committed to the European Convention on Human Rights, but without a concrete commitment, and with messaging that is changing and becoming diluted.”
There is suspicion because the prime minister has previously backed leaving the ECHR, expressing frustration there was no Commons majority for doing so.
In her 2016 Conservative leadership campaign she said she believed ECHR membership had made it harder to deport terror suspects and criminals.
On the eve of the Brexit referendum, Ms May said: “The 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.”
She became an opponent when she was home secretary during her attempts – which eventually took eight years – to extradite hate preacher Abu Qatada to Jordan to face terrorism charges
Ms May, then the home secretary, tore into the Human Rights Act in 2013, blaming it for the long delay in extraditing Qatada, a radical Islamist cleric.
He was first jailed under anti-terror laws in 2002, while living in London as an asylum seeker, but was described as a leading extremist and al-Qaeda associate.
Never convicted of a crime in the UK, the future prime minister protested it was “unacceptable” that Qatada’s removal had taken 12 years and cost over £1.7m in legal fees.
She blamed the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, for having “moved the goalposts” by establishing new, unprecedented legal grounds for blocking his deportation
In a statement released on Friday night a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman did not deny the Human Rights Act could be scrapped.
She said that leaving the EU would not change the UK’s “longstanding tradition of ensuring rights and liberties are protected here and abroad”.
The country was “committed to membership” of the ECHR post-Brexit, she added, saying that Equality Act rights for minority groups, including LGBT people, would still be protected.
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