The new Conservative government’s plan to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights looks set to fall at the first hurdle after Tory backbenchers voiced their opposition.
On Thursday David Davis became the latest Conservative MP to express doubts over the plan telling his local paper, the Hull Daily Mail, that pulling out of the Act could for Britain “into conflict with the European court”.
He said: “I’m afraid we will come into conflict with the European court and I don’t want us to leave it.
“If we leave, it’s an excuse for everyone else to leave. So I think that could be quite an interesting argument, come the day.
“I think it is more likely there will be an argument over that than over Europe.”
Davis, a leading eurosceptic voice in the party who stood against Prime Minister David Cameron in the 2005 Conservative leadership election, joins other prominent Tories including for justice secretary Ken Clarke and former attorney general Dominic Grieve in opposition a unilateral withdrawal.
The threat of a backbench rebellion with the Tory majority in the Commons a slender 9 votes and fervent opposition to the bill from most other parties will make the task of newly installed justice secretary Michael Gove a tough one. Indeed, an attempt to pass the legislation could be a key test of the stability of the government following one of the most rebellious parliaments of the last century between 2010-2015.
Both Clarke and Grieve have warned that attempts to scrap the Human Rights Act could leave the UK facing a constitutional crisis as it could violate the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement with Northern Ireland and antagonise the Scottish parliament, from which it may have to seek permission to scrap the Act. That is, it could send the UK into a constitutional crisis.
After stepping down from the Cabinet last year, Clarke maintained that it would be “unthinkable we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights” noting that the convention was drafted by British lawyers and reflects British values.
As far as we understand it, the British bill of rights would remove the obligation for British courts to “take into account” rulings from the Strasbourg Court, although in practice the two might not depart much from one another. However, it would allow judges to rule that ECHR judges were incompatible with the Bill of Rights allowing them to ignore rules from Strasbourg on a more frequent basis than they can currently.
One prominent example of where the UK government has had a run-in with the European court was over the issue of the right of prisoners to vote. In February the ECHR ruled against the UK’s ban on giving convicted prisoners the vote for the fourth time, arguing that it amounted to a breach of Article 3 of the convention that asserts the right of people to a free election.
The UK government has long stymied these attempts as it claims that the matter is for the UK to decide on, and there is little public desire to change the existing law.
As far as the government is concerned a British Bill of Rights could settle this issue, and others like it, for good. It remains to be seen if even a majority of the House of Commons agrees.
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