Sadiq Khan speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Sadiq Khan tries to shoot the Tory fox on human rights reform

Shadow justice secretary pre-empts expected Tory move by promising new guidance on the Human Rights Act. 

After cases such as the Abu Qatada affair and votes for prisoners, the Tories have made much of their commitment to reform human rights law. Theresa May has pledged that the next Conservative manifesto will include a commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act (something the Lib Dems have so far prevented them from doing) and has hinted that a Tory government could withdraw from the European Convention altogether. 

But after an inner-cabinet battle, sources suggest that the final reform package is likely to be more modest. William Hague, Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke are among those who have warned that it would be untenable for Britain to become the first country to leave the convention (which it helped to invent) and to join Belarus as the only European state not under the Strasbourg court's jurisdiction. Michael Heseltine put it well when I interviewed him earlier this year

"I get as irritated as everybody does about the European Court of Human Rights, but of course that’s got nothing to do with the European Union. It’s a very difficult one, the European Court of Human Rights, every so often they come up with some absolutely gut wrenching decision and, in the end, you’re asked as a minister, and I was asked, 'well shall we get out?'

"And then of course I remember why we’re in in the first place, and we’re in in the first place because in the 40s, long before the European Union come into existence in any form, we signed up to sending a signal to the countries, the peoples behind the Iron Curtain, that to the west was a rule of law and certain enshrined rights for people. So 'yes minister , the question is, we do understand how furious you are with this judgement, do you want to be the first country to abrogate the treaty of human rights and send a signal, not just to the people of Europe, but to the rest of the world, whom you’re trying to improve, increase, encourage to improve their democratic and human rights records, do you want to be the first country to have torn up the treaty that made this all possible and led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain?' And as a minister you tend to go a bit quiet at the stage."

More likely, I'm told, is a British Bill of Rights, including a rewritten version of Section 2 of the Human Rights Act. This stipulates that UK courts must "take into account" Strasbourg's decisions when making judgements, but is often thought to be misinterpreted. It is notable, then, that Sadiq Khan, Labour's shadow justice secretary and a former human rights lawyer, has used a piece in today's Telegraph to outline his plan to reform precisely this part of the law. 

He writes: "The wording, contained in Section 2 of the Human Rights Act, very clearly states that our courts only have to take into account Strasbourg judgments, not be bound by them. This was extensively debated at the time in Parliament, and as the records clearly show, the Tories tried to change Labour’s wording, which would have actually resulted in our judges being bound by Strasbourg’s rulings. Thankfully, Labour defeated the Tories’ crazy plans.

"But 16 years on, I think we have to acknowledge that, at times, our courts haven’t always interpreted section 2 in the way we’d intended. Too often, rather than “taking into account” Strasbourg rulings and by implication, finding their own way, our courts have acted as if these rulings were binding on their decisions. As a result, the sovereignty of our courts and the will of Parliament have both been called into question. This needs sorting out.

"And it’s not just me saying that. Senior judges and former Law Lords have also raised concerns. Former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge and former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine both believe there’s a problem with how our courts have interpreted Section 2 of the Human Rights Act."

He adds that Labour will use the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta to make it clear to judges that "they’re free to disagree with Strasbourg, that it’s sometimes healthy to do so, and that they should feel confident in their judgments based on Britain’s expertise and strong human rights standing." Khan believes that this could be achieved through guidance alone, but does not rule out legislation. 

In the piece, he also confirms Labour's existing support for the Human Rights Act and the European Convention. While the Tories will undoubtedly seek to portray their support for a British Bill of Rights as a radical alternative to Khan's proposals, the reality is that there may end up being little difference between them. 

A Labour spokesperson told me: "Not only is this the right policy but it shows Labour has a positive reform agenda on human rights issues. We remain passionately committed to the Human Rights Act and to the European Convention, and these reforms will strengthen human rights here and abroad. On the other hand, the Tories are obsessed with doing down anything to do with human rights. They never tire of trying to outdo Ukip. Labour's measured move will pre-empt any attempt from the Tories to claim to be fixing a problem which we have already sorted. But don't be surprised if they still try, in an attempt to portray it as some grand negative attack on judges, courts, human rights and Strasbourg."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.