Bishop of St Albans warns of ‘tinkering with human rights convention’ in debate on the Human Rights Act

The Bishop of St Albans spoke in a debate on the 1998 Human Rights Act, on 14th July 2022:

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for securing this debate, and for setting out so clearly many of the great benefits that have been achieved through the Human Rights Act. I will not repeat or elaborate any of those here, and perhaps save a moment or two in so doing.

As neither a legal nor constitutional expert, I am not going to delve into the technical side of the matter, but it is clear to me that this is a discussion not simply about the importance of the Human Rights Act 1998 but about many of the concerns—already raised from different Benches in this House—that noble Lords have with the proposed British Bill of Rights. Before I mention some of my concerns, I commend the introduction of the right to a trial by jury in the updated Bill of Rights Bill. But aside from this one welcome measure, it strikes me that there is a very real danger that the new Bill of Rights may remove levels of accountability from government, particularly in areas such as immigration, which I have an interest in.

Interim decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, such as that which recently prevented the deportation of refugees to Rwanda, will, it appears, become a thing of the past once the 1998 Act is replaced. This Bench has been particularly critical of the Rwanda policy. Recently, the Lords spiritual signed unanimously a letter that spoke of our Christian heritage, which should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, and, above all, that when they arrive on these shores they are given due process so that their claims can be examined.

This emphasis is important when we remember one of most influential architects behind the Council of Europe, which drafted the original European Convention on Human Rights. Robert Schuman, drawing on Catholic social teaching, saw the convention as the foundation on which to base the defence of individuals against all tyrannies and against all forms of totalitarianism. What concerns me is that the emphasis on areas such as national sovereignty and the “will of the people”—although there are obviously aspects of those that are good in themselves—means we lose sight of the original impetus behind the foundations of institutions such as the ECHR, which was to protect individuals against abuses from their Governments, something that at the time they were tragically aware of.

The defence of each human being should apply just as much to refugees, even to foreign criminals, and to individuals who have suffered at the hands of the Armed Forces as anyone else. Either they are human rights—universal and overseen by a supranational authority—or they are national rights. I sense that our Government may want to argue for both, when actually we are moving towards the latter.

Our adherence to the 1998 Act is a national choice that Parliament has made, but it is also a convention respected by successive Governments. We can all recall the huge frustration of former government Ministers at not being able to deport individuals they deemed dangerous, but their reaction was not to leave behind this well-established convention that bound us to a higher authority. A convention like this holds weight only so long as it is genuinely respected and supported.

My fear, along with that of many others I know, is that in altering or tinkering with the convention, a precedent is being set that would encourage future Governments to further tinker with our human rights legislation when it conflicts with other agendas. In the UK, Parliament is sovereign, yet it is that sense of long-established convention that prevents any overextension of its authority. Once that convention disappears, there is nothing holding back that sovereign power from acting in the sort of tyrannical manner that Schuman and many others were determined to avoid.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab): My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and to take part in a debate so excellently opened by my noble friend Lady Whitaker.

Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD): It is the empty and useless rhetoric of the Tory party which lies behind this proposed British Bill of Rights, a false and dangerous belief in British exceptionalism. The Attorney-General Suella Braverman—I will not be as cruel as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, with regard to her recent deposition—displayed her narrowness of vision and total lack of understanding when she demanded in the course of her approach to becoming premier that the UK withdraw from the European convention altogether. What understanding of the law is that in our Attorney-General?

A much nobler cause is surely to promote and support a common standard of human rights—the universal rights to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans referred. That is the reason why Russia has been expelled from the Council of Europe, as my noble friend Lady Ludford mentioned. It is the cause which Winston Churchill, a Conservative premier who—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, will agree—never lost his Liberal roots, took up in the aftermath of the Second World War. This Government are turning their back on history.

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