Suella Braverman cannot say why the UK needs to ditch ECHR

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 16th Dec 2022

At the start of this week, I led a delegation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) to a public meeting with the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

We met in Paris halfway between their base in Strasbourg and ours in London. Yes, I know, nice work if you can get it, but there was no time for sightseeing as we were only there for 24 hours and had a heavy schedule of meetings both with the committee and with British Government representatives in France. We met the latter to discuss our concern that the human rights of asylum seekers should be at the heart of the joint Franco/British response to channel small boat crossings.

The Strasbourg committee wanted to meet with us because they are concerned about the Tory Government’s plans to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. They fear that the UK Government wants to water down its commitment to the rights enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and, based on the evidence our committee has heard, they are right to be concerned. Strasbourg are particularly worried that if the UK were to do that it would send out the wrong signal internationally and give encouragement to other states in Eastern Europe such as Hungary and Poland who might do likewise.

At our meeting, our international colleagues also raised the importance of all Council of Europe states addressing migration issues in accordance with human rights and international law. There was a degree of consensus on this broken only by an intervention from a British Tory member and from a German parliamentarian from the far-right German party AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland). What he had to say about immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, was dangerously close to what we heard later in the week in the UK parliament from Jonathan Gullis MP and his far-right Tory supporters before an SNP initiative put a stop to his attempt to introduce a bill to openly flout international human rights law.

In Paris on Monday, I was able to reassure our European colleagues that the British Government have repeatedly told Council of Europe interlocutors that there are no plans to withdraw from the Convention. Indeed, on 14 July the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab wrote to the JCHR saying that the government’s plan was to remain party to the ECHR.  
 
Imagine my concern then when, just two days later, Dominic Raab, giving evidence in person to my committee, told me that the UK Government have not ruled out withdrawal from the ECHR and that this option is “not off the table.” This was in direct contradiction to the assurances he gave us in the summertime and what has been said by British Ministers in Strasbourg. However, it should not really surprise us.

Leaving the ECHR has never been far from the mainstream Tory narrative over the last few years. Back in 2015, before the Brexit referendum, when Theresa May was Home Secretary, she said that rather than leaving the European Union the UK should leave the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court. Just a few months ago the current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, told a Tory Conference fringe event that it was her position that ‘ultimately” the UK would need to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. And only two weeks ago she wrote the foreword to a pamphlet which argued that the UK membership of the Convention prevents it from adequately enforcing its immigration laws.

When the PM came to parliament on Tuesday with a 5-point plan to tackle what he calls ‘illegal immigration” and “spurious appeals”, I was keen to establish whether the legislation he is planning will comply with the UK’s international law and human rights obligations. I asked him to confirm that it would and if not whether it was his intention to derogate from treaties like the ECHR or simply to flout them. Guess what? He didn’t answer.

Overnight more migrants tragically drowned in the channel and the Home Secretary made a statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday after PMQs. She did not confine herself to expressions of regret for what had happened and condolences but also reaffirmed what the PM had said the day before about stringent new laws next year. I asked her whether it was still her position that the UK will need to leave the ECHR to deal with these issues in the way she would like. Again, she declined to answer.

During both the PM and the Home Secretary’s statement and at PMQs, multiple Tory backbenchers expressed enthusiasm for leaving the Convention or derogating from some of its provisions. Later that day Jonathan Gullis MP tried to introduce his Asylum Seekers (Removal to Safe Countries) Bill, that would have allowed the UK to disregard international and domestic law to push ahead with their plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. During his speech he argued that the UK should seriously consider its position as a member of the ECHR and quoted the pamphlet endorsed by Suella Braverman.

I was in the chamber when he spoke, and it was clear he had quite a bit of Tory support. Fortunately, due to the SNP initiative spearheaded by Alison Thewliss, who made a passionate speech in opposition to his bill, a vote was forced and he was refused leave to bring the bill. Labour MPs and at least one Tory (David Davis) voted with the SNP and the Tory payroll abstained. I saw some of the ultra-right Tories trying to persuade Suella to vote but she sat on her hands. For now. Presumably she wants to hang on to her position as Home Secretary until such time as she gets the PM’s full support for her plans to flout international law.

So, why should all this matter to the SNP and the wider Yes movement? Well, for a start, the ECHR is a fundamental part of the devolution settlement. But perhaps even more importantly, when Scotland votes for independence we will need to send out the right signal to the international community by incorporating the ECHR in our interim and final constitution as a floor, not a ceiling, for rights protections. We can be a signatory to the ECHR while we are still waiting to rejoin the EU.

As we prepare for independence, we need to demonstrate our commitment to human rights to our future international allies. The Scottish Government are working hard at this but what the SNP do at Westminster is also important. Some of the foreign parliamentarians I met in Paris were surprised and impressed that the committee overseeing scrutiny of the UK Government’s Human Rights record is chaired by an SNP MP. It will not have gone unnoticed that opposition to Tory plans to ride roughshod over international refugee and human rights law were led in the Commons this week by SNP MPs.  

Joanna Cherry KC MP

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