The news that Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC MP, is 50/50 on whether or not to back Brexit will not come as a surprise to many who regularly follow Jeremy’s contributions in the Commons. Time and again we have heard Jeremy’s consternation that Britain, and its application of Human Rights Law, is being held to account by the European Court of Human Rights. What the Attorney does not make clear is that the ECtHR has nothing to do with our membership of the European Union. I believe that he is deliberately conflating the issues between the ECHR andthe European Court of Justice. However, I suspect that the Attorney General is flirting with the outers just to appear as if Cameron has won him over when the negotiation package is finalised this week.
Anyone would think, with the amount of noise that Eurosceptics make about the Court, that Britain is constantly having to kowtow to European judgements on human rights. This could not be further from the truth. Less than 1% of cases lodged against the UK between 2012 and 2014 led to a finding against the Government. This figure shows that the UK has a strong human rights record. In fact, most cases don’t even make the first hurdle, having either been declared inadmissible or being struck out. On the rare occasion that the Court finds against the UK Government, we can be confident that the case has been properly scrutinised.
Cases that have gone before the European Court of Human Rights and have been found to be in breach of human rights law will give you an understanding of the importance of the European Convention on Human Rights and what the implications are for withdrawal from Europe. The Convention covers issues such as right to life, freedom from torture, right to liberty and security, freedom of expression and prohibition of discrimination.
Important legal precedents have been set by the Court such as ruling against the UK’s policy of dismissal from the armed forces as a result of sexuality, the ruling which curtailed the police’s use of stop and search which was predominantly used against young black men, sometimes indiscriminately, or the ruling which said that the removal of night-time care from a woman was in breach of her human rights. These cases show the importance of a strong and robust European Court of Human Rights which has citizens’ rights at its core.
The European Court of Human Rights is there to protect citizens against arbitrary state action and it is proper that the state be held to account. Eurosceptic arguments against the Court often centre on parliamentary sovereignty. In fact, it was Labour’s Human Rights Act which strengthened British sovereignty through making sure that before any case goes to the European Court in Strasbourg, it must first have been dealt with by British Courts. Talk of a Parliamentary Sovereignty Act has been rubbished by several jurists, not least the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC MP who has labelled it as pointless, whilst others have noted that it would be pointless.
If Jeremy Wright wants to pursue Brexit, this would put him at odds with the Solicitor General Robert Buckland QC MP, who has consistently shown his support for the ECHR and the Human Rights Act. The split in the Attorney General’s office would diminish any standing and would send out mixed signals from the Government when it came to its commitment to human rights both domestically and internationally.
It would not surprise me, however, to see Jeremy Wright supporting the Prime Minister and advocating for a remain vote when the time comes. Whilst he claims to be an ardent Eurosceptic, the Attorney General will not want to risk his position in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, Britain’s position as a global leader in the promotion of human rights and our strong position when it comes to speaking to others about human rights abuses. He is simply playing politics to bolster his own position with the Prime Minister.
Whilst the Tories fight like rats in a sack over our involvement in Europe and how human rights should be applied, the Labour Party should be proud of our human rights record in Government and how this was informed by our relationship in Europe and the world. Now is not the time to be shying away from our longstanding commitment to human rights, we should not cede ground when it comes to the EU. Labour is strongest when it is standing up for people, and our commitment to the ECHR, and the Human Rights Act shows where our priorities lie.