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Full transcript | David Cameron | Speech on the European Court of Human Rights | Strasbourg | 25 January 2012

"The Court has got to be able to fully protect itself against spurious cases when they have been dea

"Once in a generation, each member has the honour of leading the Council of Europe.

Today, I want to speak about the once-in-a-generation chance we have, together, to improve the way we enhance the cause of human rights, freedom and dignity.

We have an ambitious agenda for the coming months... reinforce local democracy... combat discrimination... strengthen the rule of law acrossEurope.

But the focus of our Chairmanship, as you know, is our joint effort to reform the European Court of Human Rights.

The role of the Court has never been more challenging.

As the Council has expanded, more and more people have applied to seek justice.

We need to work together to ensure that throughout these changes, the Court remains true to its original intention: to uphold the Convention and prevent the abuse of human rights.

So today, I want to explain why I believe the Court needs reform and set out some of the proposals on the table.


First, I want to make something clear.

Human rights is a cause that runs deep in the British heart and long in British history.

In the thirteenth century, Magna Carta set down specific rights for citizens, including the right to freedom from unlawful detention.

In the seventeenth century, the Petition of Right gave new authority to Parliament; and the Bill of Rights set limits on the power of the monarchy.

By the eighteenth century it was said that:

"this spirit of liberty is so deeply implanted in our constitution, and rooted in our very soil, that a slave the moment he lands in England, falls under the protection of the laws, and with regard to all natural rights becomes instantly a freeman."

It was that same spirit that led to the abolition of slavery...

...that drove the battle against tyranny in two World Wars...

...and that inspired Winston Churchill to promise that the end of the "world struggle" would see the "enthronement of human rights".

As he put it, victory in that war was the "victory of an ideal founded on the right of the common man, on the dignity of the human being, and on the conception of the State as the servant, not the master, of its people."

These beliefs have animated the British people for centuries - and they animate us today.

When the Arab Spring erupted, theUKwas a principal supporter of resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council.

We are leading EU partners in maintaining pressure on Syria.

We have played a key role in securing EU sanctions against Iran.

Through the UN, we are working to empower women in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East.

We have pledged additional money to the Special Fund for Torture Prevention.

And we are contributing to the Council of Europe's own Human Rights Trust Fund.

All these are clear signals of our belief in fundamental human rights.

And if called to defend that belief with action, we act.

When the people of Libya were reaching for the chance to shape their own destiny, Britain stepped forward with our allies to help.

Visiting Tripolia few months ago, seeing the crowds of people who were jubilant and free, I was reminded of what Margaret Thatcher once said:

"the spirit of freedom is too strong to be crushed by the tanks of tyrants".

It is our hope that this spirit of freedom spreads further - and we will continue to support those reaching for it across the Arab world.

We are not and never will be a country that walks on by while human rights are trampled into the dust.

This has a lot to do with Britain's national character - a love of freedom and an instinctive loathing of over-mighty authority.

But it is also about our national interest - to live, travel and trade in a more open, secure world.

When a government respects its citizens' human rights, that makes for a more stable country - and that is good for all of us.

It was that great champion of freedom, Vaclav Havel, who said it best:

"Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace."

In other words, a commitment to human rights is both morally right and strategically right.


So I want no one here to doubt the British commitment to defending human rights...

...nor the British understanding that the Council of Europe, the Convention and the Court have played a vital role in upholding those rights.

But believing these things does not mean sticking with the status quo...

...because as we are agreed, the time is right to ask some serious questions about how the Court is working.

Over sixty years ago the Convention was drafted with very clear intentions.

It was born in a continent reeling from totalitarian rule...

...shocked by the brutality of the holocaust...

...sickened by man's inhumanity to man.

Its purpose was clear: to spread respect for vital human rights across the continent - for life, liberty and the integrity of the person.

It has achieved some vitally important things over the decades: exposing torture; winning victories against degrading treatment in police custody; holding heavy-handed states to account.

And since the Berlin Wall fell, it has played a major role in strengthening democracy across central andEastern Europe.

Of course, we should remember that oppression and brutality are not just facts ofEurope's past.

As we sit here today, in Belarusthere are people being thrown into prison for their political beliefs.

Dissidents' voices are being silenced and their rights are being crushed.

What is happening less than a thousand miles from here underlines the continuing importance and relevance of the Council, the Convention and the Court.

It reminds us that now, more than ever, we need a Court that is a beacon for the cause of human rights, ruthlessly focussed on defending human freedom and dignity, respected across the continent and the world.

It is in that spirit that I have come here to speak to you today.

Because today, the ability of the Court to play this vital role is under threat.

As I see it, there are three inter-linking issues that should cause us concern.


First, the Court is being compelled to do too much, and that threatens its ability to do what is most important.

We have seen a massive inflation in the number of cases.

In the first forty years of its existence, 45,000 cases were presented to the Court.

In 2010 alone, 61,300 applications were presented.

This has created a huge backlog - more than 160,000 cases at its peak.

There can still be a delay of some years before cases are heard, which means tens of thousands of people with their lives on hold.

These will inevitably include some of the most serious cases: of detention; torture; people who have had their fundamental rights denied.

Let me be clear: impressive steps are already being taken to filter out inadmissible cases more quickly.

The Court should be congratulated on that - but a new problem is emerging.

More and more of the backlog is now made up of admissible cases that, according to the current criteria, should be heard in full.

Again, the Court is doing good work to deal with this.

A system to prioritise the most important cases is in place.

But the sheer volume risks urgent cases being stuck in the queue.

That means the very purpose of the Court - to prevent the most serious violations of human rights - is under threat.


This flood of cases is linked to the second issue.

The Court is properly safeguarding the right of individual petition - and it's a principle the UK is committed to.

But with this, comes the risk of turning into a court of 'fourth instance'...

...because there has already been a first hearing in a court, a second one in an appeal court, and a third in a supreme or constitutional court.

In effect that gives an extra bite of the cherry to anyone who is dissatisfied with a domestic ruling, even where that judgement is reasonable, well-founded, and in line with the Convention.

Quite simply, the Court has got to be able to fully protect itself against spurious cases when they have been dealt with at the national level.

A good start has been made with Protocol 14, which makes clear that cases aren't admissible if there is no significant disadvantage to the applicant.

The initial case where the protocol has been used shows exactly the kind of thing I mean.

The applicant was taking a bus company to court for 90 Euros compensation, because they felt their journey fromBucharesttoMadridhadn't been as comfortable as advertised.

One of the matters at issue was that they didn't provide fully-reclining seats.

The domestic courts had turned him down, and he was taking his case to the Court.

Now I think we can all agree that fully-reclining seats would be very desirable on a trip fromBucharesttoMadrid...

...but we can also agree that this is a completely trivial case, and is not the kind of case that should be heard here.

The Court agreed - and quite rightly rejected the claim.

But this case just underlines how important it is for the Court to have that consistent power to control the cases it admits.


The third issue is that the Court is, quite rightly, determined to make sure that consistent standards of rights are upheld across the 47 member states...

...but at times it has felt to us in national governments that the 'margin of appreciation' - which allows for different interpretations of the Convention - has shrunk...

...and that not enough account is being taken of democratic decisions by national parliaments.

Let us be frank about the fall-out from this issue.

As the margin of appreciation has shrunk, so controversy has grown.

You will know that in theUKthere is a lively debate about the way human rights law works, and how our own national courts interact withEurope.

Yes, some of this is misinterpretation - but some of it is credible democratic anxiety, as with the prisoner voting issue.

I completely understand the Court's belief that a national decision must be properly made.

But in the end, I believe that where an issue like this has been subjected to proper, reasoned democratic debate...

...and has also met with detailed scrutiny by national courts in line with the Convention...

...the decision made at a national level should be treated with respect.

Another example of this - and one we can all agree on - is in the area of immigration.

AtIzmir, we collectively invited the Court, "to avoid intervening except in the most exceptional circumstances."

All states agreed that the Court was, in some cases, too ready to substitute its judgment for that of reasonable national processes and all agreed that that was not its role.

In other words, it should not see itself as an immigration tribunal.

Protecting a country from terrorism is one of the most important tasks for any government.

Again, no one should argue that you defend our systems of rights and freedom by suspending those freedoms.

But we do have a real problem when it comes to foreign national who threaten our security.


In Britain we have gone through all reasonable national processes...

...including painstaking international agreements about how they should be treated...

...and scrutiny by our own courts...

...and yet we are still unable to deport them.

It is therefore not surprising that some people start asking questions about whether the current arrangements are really sensible.

Of course, no decent country should deport people if they are going to be tortured.

But the problem today is that you can end up with someone who has no right to live in your country, who you are convinced - and have good reason to be convinced - means to do your country harm.

And yet there are circumstances in which you cannot try them, you cannot detain them and you cannot deport them.

So having put in place every possible safeguard to ensure that ECHR rights are not violated, we still cannot fulfil our duty to our law-abiding citizens to protect them.

Together, we have to find a solution to this.

These concerns are shared by many member states.

And at the heart of this concern is not antipathy to human rights; it is anxiety that the concept of human rights is being distorted.

As a result, for too many people, the very concept of rights is in danger of slipping from something noble to something discredited - and that should be of deep concern to us all.

Upholding and promoting human rights is not something governments and courts can do alone... is something we need all our societies to be engaged with.

And when controversial rulings overshadow the good and patient long-term work that has been done, that not only fails to do justice to the work of the Court... has a corrosive effect on people's support for human rights.

The Court cannot afford to lose the confidence of the people ofEurope.


Taken together, these issues threaten to shift the role of the Court away from its key objectives.

The Court should be free to deal with the most serious violations of human rights; it should not be swamped with an endless backlog of cases.

The Court should ensure that the right to individual petition counts; it should not act as a small claims court.

And the Court should hold us all to account; it should not undermine its own reputation by going over national decisions where it does not need to.

For the sake of the 800million people the Court serves, we need to reform it so that it is true to its original purpose.

Already 47 members are agreed on this, and great work has been done.

Now we would like to use our Chairmanship to help progress that work.

This is the right moment for reform - reforms that are practical, sensible and that enhance the reputation of the Court.


So we are looking to improve the efficiency of the Court.

New rules could enable it to focus more efficiently and transparently on the most important cases.

We want to improve the procedures for nominating judges.

The Assembly needs consistently strong shortlists from which to elect judges - and clear guidelines on national selection procedures could help with that.

And we are hoping to get consensus on strengthening subsidiarity - the principle that where possible, final decisions should be made nationally.

It is of course correct that the Court should hold governments to account when they fail to protect human rights.

In these instances it is right for the Court to intervene.

But what we are all striving for is that national governments should take primary responsibility for safeguarding their citizens' rights - and do it well.

Subsidiarity is a fundamental principle of the Convention, and atIzmir, we were all clear that more needed to be done to give it practical effect.

For that reason, we will shortly set out our proposals for pushing responsibility to the national system.

That way we can free up the Court to concentrate on the worst, most flagrant human rights violations - and to challenge national courts when they clearly haven't followed the Convention.

Of course, re-balancing this relationship is a two-way street.

The other side of the deal is that members get better at implementing the Convention at national level.

That is why, in theUK, we are investigating the case for a UK Bill of Rights, and thoroughly examining the way our liberties are protected.

Parliaments also have a key role - and we are proud of the role that our own Joint Committee on Human Rights plays.

And of course, this Assembly makes a vital contribution, helping states to honour their obligations.

Together, through these institutions, we can reduce the number of violations and ultimately ease the burden on the Court.


Let me finish today by saying this.

With this Chairmanship we have a clear opportunity to agree a practical programme of reform.

Built on the noble intentions of the Convention.

Forged through consensus.

Driven by a belief in fundamental human rights and a passion to advance them.

This is undoubtedly a challenge - but it is a challenge we can meet together."

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.