Charlie Elphicke is MP for Dover and Deal.
Britain needs to restore trust and confidence in the human rights ideal. That’s why I have long argued that we should sweep away Labour’s discredited Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. Today’s announcement by the reforming Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, that we will bring forward a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities is a milestone.
A key element of the reform is to ensure our freedoms are under the control of the UK Supreme Court and not European judges. It’s wrong for Strasbourg to decide these things. British judges in British courts should have the final say on British laws passed by the British Parliament.
Is it really a protection to us that a distant and largely discredited European Court should have the power to overthrow our democratic processes and dictate how we run our democracy? I think not, and it’s noteworthy that the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, also said this week that it should not.
What’s more, this is a reform the British people want. Three out of four people tell pollsters that Labour’s Human Rights Act is a charter for criminals and the undeserving.
The fact that the British people feel so strongly is not surprising when you look at the ham-fisted judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. Too often the Strasbourg judges create more problems than they solve.
This is a point most strongly made by Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General. Dominic said the European Court had changed from being “an international tribunal adjudicating on a few major cases” he said it had turned “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”. I agree with Dominic, and it’s welcome the Justice Secretary is setting out a strong plan of action to tackle it rather than indulging in empty hand wringing.
Let’s be clear about the problem. Under current laws, villains and terrorists too often appear to have the upper hand. Remember all that trouble about throwing out Abu Qatada? And the case of Aso Mohammed Ibrahim? The Iraqi knocked down and killed 12-year-old Amy Houston with his car and yet was allowed to remain in the UK. Immigration judges ruled that sending him home would breach his right to a “private and family life”. What about the family life of little Amy and her family that was so cruelly snatched away? We should be able to secure our borders and deport people who commit crimes without delay.
The issue of prisoner voting highlights where things have gone so badly wrong. There is no provision for universal suffrage in the Convention. Yet the European Court has ruled that we must abandon our ban on prisoners voting. It does so by finding rights that do not exist in the Convention text in letter or even in spirit. The European Court has quite simply made it up. Our Parliament has voted firmly not to let prisoners vote and we won’t change our mind. Our people are equally emphatic. The united democratic will of our Parliament and our people should not be subverted by a European Court that makes stuff up as it goes along.
On the other hand, there is a real sense that our people do not have the protection under our laws that they should have. That the European Court picks rights that protect the undeserving but overlooks those that protect our long held freedoms. Fundamental principles such as freedom of speech and of religion are too often under siege. Our Parliament should be able to protect our freedoms without them being undermined by the European Court.
At the heart of any society lies a basic social contract. A contract where rights are matched by responsibilities.
You don’t hear enough about that when human rights are discussed. It always seems to be, ‘I know my rights’. We should hear, ‘I know my responsibilities’ as well. Such a social contract lies at the heart of any British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. It’s truly to be welcomed that today’s announcement includes this fundamental of the social contact that runs like a gossamer thread through our society and our way of life.
It is because we need to protect our ancient customs, liberties and freedoms that a British Bill of Rights is needed. It is because we need to restore trust and confidence in human rights that this reform is urgently required. And it is because we are a forward looking and progressive party that we seek to modernise our constitutional arrangements with this much needed reform. A reform that will ensure we support the convention text without the excesses of the European Court.
We, the British people, should have the final say on our rights. We alone should decide on the social contract at the heart of our society, not Europe nor anywhere else.