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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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