Chris Grayling is Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice, and MP for Epsom and Ewell.
Today, our plan for human rights reform sets a clear direction that I believe our Party has long wanted.
We have all watched frustrated as Labour’s Human Rights Act and rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg encroached on more and more areas of our lives, and supported the rights of the few over the rights of the many. And we have wanted change.
Yet at the same time we do not want to become a nation that ignores human rights. With good reason, the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe recently described the UK as being top of the class for human rights.
So our goal has been to deliver change without walking away from the principles that we agreed when the European Convention was signed back in the 1940s.
In achieving that, we must stop the mission creep that the European Court of Human Rights has embarked upon since the Convention first came into force. Dominic Grieve once rightly said that it has moved from being “an international tribunal adjudicating on a few major cases… into an appeal court ruling on the minutiae of administrative decision-making, ranging from what is allowable in smacking a child to what degree of ill health is needed before deportation becomes a cruel and inhuman act”.
Our Courts too now treat the Convention, and the interpretation of it in Strasbourg, as sacrosanct – a near constitutional reference point for what they do. With Parliament having no say.
That issue is already coming to a head over the issue of prisoner voting. The European Court of Human Rights says we must do it. Its President says its rulings should be final. But our Parliament seems very unlikely to agree. So the time for change has come.
Our planned British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities will completely change the way in which our human rights laws work.
It will retain the principles of the original Human Rights Convention. But it will put clearly into our law limitations on where and how it can be applied. There will be a whole range of caveats. There will be a triviality test stopping human rights laws being used for minor matters. We will limit the reach of human rights claims to the UK, preventing cases being brought against our Armed Forces overseas, that just stop them doing their job and keeping us safe. There will be a proper balance between rights and responsibilities.
Crucially, we will stop Article 8, the Right to Family Life, being used for purposes it was never intended. It should not be used by an individual to say that their right to family life allows them to override the law that applies to every other citizen, for example travellers occupying green belt land and claiming human rights trump planning laws. Or a similar situation with a foreign criminal and our immigration laws. Everyone must be subject to the same law of the land, no exceptions. And A Right to Family Life should certainly never be used to justify prisoners having artificial insemination!
This approach future-proofs our laws as well. If our courts continue to set a direction which Parliament completely disagrees with, Parliament will be able to introduce additional limitations on where and how human rights can be applied through our British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. Ultimately, as the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said this week: in a democracy the rule of law does not and should not leave the final say with the judges.
So where does this leave the European Court of Human Rights?
Our Bill will break its formal link to UK Courts, so they no longer need to take account of its decisions. That will leave the European Court of Human Rights as only an advisory body in the UK – able to make recommendations to us and no more. Our Supreme Court will always have the final say on human rights cases, and our Parliament will always have the final say on our human rights laws.
But what if the Court and the Council of Europe disagree? After a Conservative victory, it will take time for a new Bill to pass through Parliament. During that time we will discuss our plans with other European nations, and engage with them on how we intend to handle human rights matters in the future. We hope they will accept our plans. But if they cannot, then we will invoke our treaty rights to withdraw from the Convention altogether, to coincide with the passage of the new Bill into law.
In today’s uncertain world, our commitment to human rights and international co-operation is as important as ever; but that does not need to be at the expense of the sovereignty of our Parliament and of our country. As Conservatives, it falls to us to put Britain first, and restore common sense to our human rights framework. As a majority Conservative government, that is just what we would do.