Raab suggests leaving ECHR
But is he serious? And will it be up to him?
Dominic Raab is no longer ruling out the possibility that the UK might leave the European Convention on Human Rights, he told parliament’s joint committee on human rights this afternoon:
The government’s position is very clear: we rule nothing out. Nothing is off the table for the future...
So he was not ruling out withdrawing from the convention in the future?
In the future, depending on the situation we find ourselves in, given the ebb and flow of the approach Strasbourg has taken, I don’t think it’s responsible for the government to rule things out.
As the committee chair Joanna Cherry KC immediately pointed out, this sounded like a change of position. Until today, the justice secretary has always insisted the UK would remain a party to the convention — even though the way it was applied by courts in the United Kingdom would alter if his Bill of Rights Bill was passed by parliament.
Quite how seriously we should take Raab’s carefully calibrated remarks is difficult to judge. Two hours into the oral evidence session he told the committee was a fan of the Council of Europe, which is responsible for the convention and the court that enforces it.
“We’re not looking to trip up out of the convention,” he said. He gave a similarly equivocal answer when it was put to him that leaving the convention would effectively wreck the Good Friday agreement, whose 25th anniversary is expected to be celebrated with visits by President Biden to Belfast and Dublin in the spring.
Until now, Raab has argued that that the Belfast agreement has been safe because the UK would remain bound by the convention. Last month, he told the Commons justice committee:
I think the position on the Good Friday agreement is very clear. We are staying as a party to the ECHR. I think that satisfies the issue with the Good Friday agreement.
Raab’s bill is drafted on the premise that the UK would remain signed up to the international treaty. Leaving voluntarily — as Russia did in March, one day before it was expelled — would be a huge policy change. It would not take effect for six months; it would not be retrospective and it would not necessarily achieve the government’s aims — whatever those might be.
The Conservative MP Danny Kruger suggested leaving the convention during prime minister’s questions today, receiving no response on the point from Rishi Sunak. The home secretary Suella Braverman is known to support withdrawal.
So perhaps Raab wants to reposition himself within his party. He gave the impression that withdrawal was not something he wanted to do. But he didn’t explain what he thought would make it necessary or appropriate. It sounded a bit like cakeism.
Waiting for a date
As expected, Raab could not say when his Bill of Rights Bill would be debated by MPs for the first time. “We’re ready to go, the bill of rights is ready to go and we look forward to bringing it forward for second reading,” he told the committee. But the deputy prime minister had not been given a date.
If Raab’s bill does get as far as a second reading in the Commons, his remarks today on a wide range of issues relating to the bill will receive careful scrutiny.
Meanwhile, the committee chair was careful not to pre-judge eight complaints against Raab that are now being investigated by Adam Tolley KC. But she pointed out that this bill was very much Raab’s baby. If he were forced to resign — or to “demit office” in Cherry’s Scottish legal idiom — then who did he think would take the bill forward?
“I’m very confident that the bill of rights is a government proposal, not my proposal, and we have collective responsibility on these things,” he replied.
We shall see.
Update 21 December: Cherry tried to get some answers to these questions from Rishi Sunak yesterday when the prime minister gave evidence to the Commons liaison committee. I think it’s fair to say she didn’t get very far:
Joanna Cherry: Good afternoon, prime minister. In September, the current home secretary told a fringe event at your party conference that ultimately the United Kingdom would need to leave the European convention on human rights. Last week, when we had the deputy prime minister and lord chancellor in front of the joint committee on human rights, I asked about his position on the convention. He said, “The government's position is very clear: we rule nothing out. Nothing is off the table for the future.” Can you confirm whether you agree with your home secretary and whether the deputy prime minister accurately described the position of your government to my committee?
The Prime Minister: I have been very clear, as I said previously, that I want to deliver an immigration system that means that when someone comes here illegally, they don’t have the right to stay and we will be able to return them either to their own country, where that is safe, or to a safe third country alternative where that makes sense. We will introduce the legislation next year. I am confident we can deliver on the system I want to put in place.
Joanna Cherry: But what I asked you is whether the home secretary is correct to say that, ultimately, it will be required that we leave the convention.
The Prime Minister: As I said, we will put in place the legislation next year, and I am sure we will discuss it at that time.
Joanna Cherry: Do you disagree with her?
The Prime Minister: I don’t think I was in government at the time she made the comment, and I am not familiar with it, but what I can tell you about is the system that I am going to deliver as prime minister, which I am working on with the home secretary. You will see the legislation next year and, no doubt, we will have the opportunity to debate it then. I would not want to speculate on that now.
Joanna Cherry: Despite the high turnover of prime ministers, you were in government last week when the deputy prime minister told me that it was not “off the table”. Is that correct—leaving the convention is not off the table for your government?
The Prime Minister: I want to fix this problem, and I am going to do everything I need to do to fix the problem of illegal migration in small boats coming here. We will introduce legislation in the new year that will help us do that. As I said, there are lots of different things we need to do—legislation is part of it, Rwanda is part of it, our approach to Albania is part of it—but I am confident we can deliver on all these things.
Joanna Cherry: When will the British Bill of Rights Bill have a second reading?
The Prime Minister: I do not have a specific date. As with all these things, it is when parliamentary time allows.
Joanna Cherry: Has it been deprioritised to allow you to concentrate on the new immigration legislation you have just mentioned?
The Prime Minister: I am a new prime minister; you would expect me to look at the entire legislative programme and make decisions on that basis. There are some things we need to do sooner rather than later. For example, with Northern Ireland we had to make decisions because of the lack of a functioning executive. That meant that that legislation had to be introduced at that time. That was not something I was anticipating beforehand. Those are the types of things that come up, but we are keen to deliver on illegal migration, and it is something that I have said is a priority.
Joanna Cherry: The Bill of Rights Bill is very much Dominic Raab’s baby—very much his pet project. If the bullying allegations against him, which are currently being investigated, are found to be true and he has to resign, would that be the end of the Bill of Rights?
The Prime Minister: I do not think you would expect me to comment on either of those points. I would just point out it was also a manifesto commitment to update the Human Rights Act.
Joanna Cherry: But there wasn’t a manifesto commitment to repeal and replace the Human Rights Act, was there?
The Prime Minister: There are lots of different ways of doing it, but I am making the broader point that a commitment to update the Human Rights Act was there from 2019.
Joanna Cherry: But my point is that Dominic Raab’s bill does not update the Human Rights Act; it repeals it and replaces it with something else. Are you saying that the option of simply updating it is still on the table?
The Prime Minister: I was making the broader point that that is where the genesis of the policy comes from, but there are some very practical, sensible things that would be good—I think everyone hopefully would agree—whether that is deporting more foreign national offenders who are using their article 8 right to a family life to stop being deported, or whether it is convicted terrorists in prisons who are somehow able to use their right to socialise to stop being separated from other prisoners, which we think will actually cause more radicalisation. Indeed, that was the recommendation of an independent reviewer of counter-terrorism for us. Where we are not able to deliver on those very sensible policy things because of the way the Human Rights Act is being interpreted, it seems entirely reasonable to look at how best to resolve those.
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