The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks (pictured), recently visited the UK, and trips to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland as well as England were on his agenda. Below are extracts from the press release that was issued in relation to his visit, in which some interesting comments are made/ quotations offered concerning the Commissioner’s impressions of how debates on the HRA and the ECHR have proceeded in the UK. Rather interesting too, were the comments made by Dominic Raab when he was asked about Mr Muižnieks’ views (see below).
As will be seen from the extracts from the Press Release below, the Commissioner makes a strong argument to the effect that human rights reforms in the UK must not weaken the protection already offered. In addition to that, for me two further points emerged from the Commissioner’s statement. (i) The Commissioner suggests that the nature of the debate and its extended nature (due to the government’s failure to publish its plans) have caused unnecessary ‘anxiety’; and, he suggests, (ii) the debate and anxiety are rather focussed in England, there being general support for the Convention and the Court in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (‘My impression is that the debate over the HRA in Westminster is not a true reflection of concerns outside England’.
Dominic Raab commented on what Mr Muižnieks had to say, when the matter was brought up in Parliament yesterday. He referred to his own meeting with the Commissioner and commented that:
there is absolutely no cause for anxiety. We will introduce proposals for full consultation in the near future—those proposals are going well—and she will hear more shortly.
After month and months of delay, then, we still have little idea of when the Conservatives’ consultation plans will be issued…
What then of Mr Raab’s reply to a question put to him about the Westminster debate not being a true reflection of the national view? Joanna Cherry MP ([Scottish National Party]) quoted the Commissioner on this and asked:
Does the Minister appreciate that the impact on the devolved Administrations of an attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act would likely provoke a constitutional crisis?
To this Mr Raab replied:
The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right that the debate within the Westminster bubble, particularly the shrill scaremongering, is not reflective of wider public opinion outside the House, which is clearly and consistently in favour of a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act, including, she will note, in Scotland.
I have read this several times, trying to work out if I am missing something, but the only understanding I can obtain from it is that Mr Raab acknowledges that there has been ‘shrill scaremongering’ in the ‘Westminster bubble’.
With my tongue in my cheek, I can only conclude from this that Mr Muižnieks’ must have made quite an impression on Mr Raab, whose party has been accused of leading the very scaremongering that he now acknowledges is not reflective of public opinion.
As to whether there is support for a Bill of Rights in Scotland, that will surely depend on the substance of the Bill, about which we still know very little.
For ease of reference, the Press release from Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights office is produced in blue below.
“The repeatedly delayed launch of the consultation process for repeal of the Human Rights Act has created much speculation and an atmosphere of anxiety and concern in civil society and in some parts of the devolved administrations. There is a real fear of regression in terms of rights’ protection in the United Kingdom”
said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, at the end of his six day visit to the country, which focused on the government’s forthcoming plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and create a revised Bill of Rights, as well as the implementation of the few remaining judgments from the European Court of Human Rights.
The visits to Edinburgh and Belfast provided an opportunity for the Commissioner to assess first-hand the views of the devolved administrations, parliaments and local civil society on the planned reform to the human rights system.
“The European Convention on Human Rights and the Strasbourg Court are generally viewed positively in Scotland as accelerators of change. I welcome the fact that the Scottish government is looking at going beyond the Convention, by implementing other international human rights treaties directly into Scottish law. The Scottish National Action Plan for Human Rights is also a good example for other parts of the UK.”
Another regional example is the rights based approach to making policy for children and young people in Wales where all Welsh Ministers have a duty to have due regard to the substantive rights and obligations within the UN child rights convention when exercising any of their Ministerial functions.
“My impression is that the debate over the HRA in Westminster is not a true reflection of concerns outside England”.
The Commissioner noted the fact that the European Convention on Human Rights has a particular resonance in Northern Ireland where it is part of the Good Friday Agreement, and where the Human Rights Act underpins key policing institutions.
“I urge the UK government and other parties concerned to return to negotiations on mechanisms for dealing with the past in the Stormont House Agreement, including setting up the Historical Investigations Unit, as soon as possible. Disagreements over the national security veto concerning disclosure of information need to be resolved.”
Concerning the legacy inquest cases, the Commissioner welcomed the appointment of the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland as President of the Coroner’s Court and the beginning of a major review by a senior judge to assess the state of readiness of each case. He noted that the coronial inquests system would need to be changed to deal with the remaining cases because the prospect of waiting another 25 years for justice was untenable. He also urged the necessary government funding to sustain this initiative.
The Commissioner encouraged more consultation with the devolved governments over the Human Rights Act reform proposals and underlined that this consultation period should not overlap with the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly and the pre-election period.
“Each member state of the Council of Europe has the freedom to decide the best way in which to ensure that the European Convention on Human Rights is implemented domestically. The Human Rights Act is not the only model available, but a Bill of Rights or any other substitute should in no case weaken protection of human rights.”