Riding high on their positive party conference mood, the Tories have decided to announce one of their main policy pledges this week: scrapping the Human Rights Act and overriding Strasbourg decisions.
It’s something the party has long been obsessed with, the pledge to replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights appearing in its 2010 election manifesto. Going into coalition with the Lib Dems, who are unsurprisingly opposed to such plans, meant the Tories could not achieve their aim in this parliament. They intend to embark upon these plans if they win a majority in 2015.
The party’s idea is to scrap the Human Rights Act, replace it with a so-called homegrown Bill, and to stop British laws being overruled by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Tories have also highlighted that they would be prepared to leave the European Convention on Human Rights altogether, if that is what it takes to curb Strasbourg’s powers.
It’s a symbolic move – standing up to European institutions is a populist direction that the Tories can play on in the build-up to the general election. Indeed, YouGov polling in July this year found that 48 per cent of voters would support leaving the European Convention on Human Rights.
Wrangling with terrorists using the Human Rights Act to fight deportation – often with the defence of a right to a family life – and the issue of prisoners’ votes have enabled the Tories to spin European human rights law as at odds with the “common sense” laws that Britain would impose if it had the final say.
However, the government’s former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, highlighted on the BBC’s Today programme this morning the Tory leadership’s “mass misunderstanding” of what the European Court of Human Rights does. He highlighted that many of the court’s decisions have been “benchmarks in improving human rights throughout Europe”.
The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, speaking on the same programme, refuted the criticism that his moves on this are political. He insisted that it’s something his party has argued for “for ten years”, and snapped: “We’ve been planning this announcement for weeks. It’s not entirely surprising a party would launch a major new policy development in the months leading up to a general election.”
However, he did point out how popular overriding European human rights rulings would be with the public, arguing that, “people in this country believe there should never be a blank cheque” for Strasbourg to impose its laws.
On whether or not Britain would leave the Convention, he replied: “If we cannot reach an agreement that our courts and our laws have the final say.”