By Daniel Martin
Created 9:59 PM on 27th October 2011
The man in charge of the controversial European Convention of Human Rights has admitted David Cameron’s pledge to bring in a British Bill of Rights could be the ‘right thing to do’.
Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, said he would accept the Tories’ plan to scrap the Human Rights Act – if the idea was to enshrine the convention in UK law.
But he warned that if the UK was seen to turn away from the European Convention, it could harm the promotion of human rights in other states.
Mr Jagland was in London to meet Coalition ministers ahead of Britain’s assumption of the rotating presidency of the 47-member European Council, which is the guardian of the ECHR.
In the Commons, MPs debated the European Council yesterday. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was due to address MPs on the subject but in the end his place was taken by junior Foreign Office minister Daid Lidington.
In opposition, Mr Cameron promised to scrap the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law.
He said he would replace it with a British Bill of Rights, which would enshrine human rights in our law but would get rid of some of the perceived excesses, such as making it harder to deport convicted criminals.
During the Coalition negotiations, Nick Clegg agreed to look at the idea, although the Lib Dems want to keep the Human Rights Act.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Jagland said he was sanguine about the plans – as long as the convention itself is not infringed.
In the Commons debate, Mr Lidington warned that reforms of the European Court of Human Rights would ‘take time’
He said: ‘If [the Bill of Rights] is an alternative to the Human Rights Convention, it will be a problem. But if it is about defining the role of the convention in your own system, it is the right thing to do.’
Mr Jagland also warned of the danger that if the UK came out fully against the Convention, it could damage human rights compliance in countries like Russia and Turkey.
He said: ‘If the UK with its long-standing tradition as a human rights defender were now to be perceived as calling the convention into question, this could have a negative knock-on effect in other countries.’
Mr Jagland also singled Justice Secretary Ken Clarke out for praise
But he added that robust debate over the future of the Convention was good for democracy. ‘I appreciate the debate. Criticism is always something good in a democracy. Something constructive can come out of it. I appreciate that this is going on in the UK.’
Mr Jagland also singled Mr Clarke out for praise. ‘He is not only open [to ideas], but he understands, of course, very well why we have this Europe we have today, why we have to protect human rights,’ he said. ‘In addition to being intelligent, he is also very wise. So it’s easy to work with him.’
In the Commons debate, Mr Lidington warned that reforms of the European Court of Human Rights would ‘take time’.
Reform of the Strasbourg court is at the top of the agenda when the UK takes over the European Council’s presidency, after a string of controversial rulings by its judges.
Mr Lidington said the court was hearing too many cases and should focus on ‘real and substantive breaches of human rights’, adding that it had ‘been too ready to substitute its own judgment for that of national courts and parliaments’.
‘The European Court of Human Rights was never intended by its founders to be an additional tier of appeal for routine domestic judgments,’ he said.
‘Enforcing rights in situations where the drafters of the convention never intended them to be is the wrong direction of travel for the court and this situation is getting worse and it actually undermines both the court’s authority and its efficiency.’
With the chairmanship of the Council rotating every six months, Mr Lidington said the UK’s priority would be on achieving a political agreement for change.
But he warned: ‘Reform requires the agreement of all 47 member states; there’s no getting around that fact. We will accord the highest political priority to securing consensus for the necessary reforms by means of a political declaration at the end of our chairmanship.
‘This declaration would record political agreement to a package of reforms and set the scene for later implementation under subsequent chairmanships.’
But he added: ‘No one should be in any doubt that delivering on these goals is going to take time, it is going to take a lot of intensive and complicated negotiations. I do believe the winds of change are in our favour.’