The government is planning to “opt out” of parts of the European convention on human rights in order to speed up deportations of asylum seekers and protect British troops serving overseas from legal action.
The proposals are being coordinated by Downing Street aides. They are intended to rule out claims in areas where judges have supposedly “overreached” their powers.
The restrictions, according to the Sunday Telegraph, could prevent migrants and asylum seekers from using the legislation to avoid being removed from the UK and to shield British soldiers against claims following overseas operations.
Downing Street’s determination to restrict human rights powers has become entangled with the EU withdrawal negotiations. The government is resisting giving Brussels a formal undertaking to adhere to the convention.
A government spokesperson said: “The UK is committed to the European convention on human rights and to protecting human rights and championing them at home and abroad, but we believe that this does not require an additional binding international legal commitment.
“How the UK gives effect to its longstanding strong human rights protections is a matter for the UK as an autonomous country. In the same way, it’s a matter for the EU and its member states to give effect to their own human rights protections according to their own legal orders.”
The Human Rights Act, passed by the Labour government in 1998, incorporates convention rights into British law. It has long been the target of rightwing Tories.
The party’s election manifesto last year pledged to “update” the act and “ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government”.
Previous attempts to curb the Human Rights Act have failed to materialise. In the context of the row over the Boris Johnson’s threat to override the EU withdrawal agreement, however, it appears to signal a broader determination to back out of the UK’s international legal obligations.
The justice secretary, Robert Buckland QC, said on Times Radio: “Now the [Human Rights] Act is 20 years of age, I think it needs to be looked at carefully. We’re working on ways on which we can examine that and do it in a mature and sensible way.
“But … the idea that we’re going to leave the convention is for the birds. You know, it was British Conservative lawyers who wrote the damn thing back in 1950. We wrote it because we were leaders of Europe when it came to freedom, we wanted to underline the importance of fundamental rights and freedoms back then and that frankly for me is hugely important.
“It is a badge of honour for this country that we did that. Yes, there have been moments when we have had disagreements and clashes about aspects of its interpretation, but you know there is a wide margin of appreciation that allows member states, Britain, France, other countries, to make their own laws which give us a huge amount of freedom.”
The convention is overseen by the Council of Europe, which has 47 member states including Russia and Turkey. Belarus is the only European state that is not a signatory.
Reports of the latest assault on the Human Rights Act triggered opposition from Labour and prominent lawyers.
David Lammy MP, the shadow justice secretary, said: “Labour is proud of our country’s role in developing human rights at home and abroad. Instead of giving unattributed briefings designed to distract the government should focus on getting a Brexit deal and defeating the virus.
“Any attempt to abandon human rights would make life in Britain less secure and hold our country back on the world stage.”
Mark Elliott, a professor of public law at Cambridge University, tweeted: “First they came for the European Union. Then they came for the European convention on human rights. This was always a question on when, not if. The logical endpoint of this initiative is withdrawal from the ECHR.”
Philippe Sands, a professor of international law at University College London, added: “And why not the UN too? Tear up all the UK created in 1945.”
The Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, Wera Hobhouse, said: “This Conservative government’s attacks on the rule of law must stop. The Human Rights Act does not stop us deporting serious criminals. Threatening to weaken people’s ability to challenge the government just because the courts sometimes rule against you is the act of dictators and despots, not democrats.
“With these plans, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are trying to enable the government to run roughshod over people’s rights and allow ministers to break the law with impunity.”
Video: Justice Secretary: I will resign if ministers break law in ‘unacceptable’ way (PA Media)
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